At Mali female prison, many accused of infanticide

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) ? Coumba came to Mali’s capital in search of work ? and pregnant outside wedlock. Fearful of her family’s scorn, the 18-year-old did the unthinkable.

Her employer offered to take her to a hospital where she could give birth. She refused.

“When the time came for me to deliver I went to the toilet. Then the child went into the hole and that was the end of it,” she said, speaking softly and looking down at the floor as she played with the hem of her skirt. She doesn’t say whether the baby was a boy or a girl.

Authorities arrested her after she told a friend what happened and the friend informed the police.

Here in one of the poorest countries in the world, abortion is illegal and UNICEF estimates only 8 percent of Malian women use contraception.

Infanticide or attempted infanticide has become the most common crime after theft and assault among inmates at the prison for women and girls in this West African capital.

Earlier this month officials said 25 out of the 122 female prisoners were being held for killing or attempting to kill their children.

Most who leave infants in vacant lots, gutters or toilet pits only serve a year or two; no one can say how long Coumba will stay here.

The offenders are mainly young women who have come to the capital from villages to take up work cooking and cleaning in families, some earning as little as $10 a month.

Jacqueline Dembele sees girls almost daily who don’t want to keep their babies. She runs Muso Danbe, an organization which supports women and girls working as domestic workers.

“Often the men around them ? the man of the house, the sons or other young men ? take advantage of them. They get pregnant and then they will do anything they can to get rid of the baby,” Dembele says.

“They spend the whole time during the pregnancy thinking about how they are going to lose their job and how they will have to take the child back to their village. By the time they give birth they are totally traumatized, almost crazy,” she says.

One woman Muso Danbe has helped is 18-year-old Tabita. She came to see the NGO after she says she was drugged and raped by her employer. She later found out that she was pregnant.

Muso Danbe helped place Tabita in a refuge run by Catholic nuns. She gave birth and is now doing cooking classes so she can start working with a family again or get a job in a restaurant.

“Before when I was working I would make 15,000 CFA (USD$33) a month, but now if I were to work in a family they would only pay me half that because people don’t want to employ a maid with a baby,” Tabita says.

Tabita looks down fondly at chubby little Jean Claude and says that she loves the child, but still would rather not have had him.

“Now that I have my child I have to stop working for at least five months. He’s just too small right now for me to work. And that’s five months of no salary,” she says.

In the courtyard of the women’s prison, a large tree protects the inmates from the sun as they sit in small groups and do each others’ hair, knit and prepare food.

The director of the prison, Hadiata Maiga, says many of the older women who have been detained for infanticide or attempted infanticide are reluctant to discuss what crimes brought them here.

“It’s tough for a woman who has thrown her baby into a gutter or a toilet to talk about it, but we have to try to help them,” she says.

In the prison, the women learn trades like sewing and soap-making. They also tend a garden and have sessions with a drama teacher.

Coumba says she regrets having killed her child and looks forward to starting a new life.

“After I’m freed from this prison I’d like to go home and get married and, yes, I’d like to have children again too,” she says.