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Mali: Society
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Population: According to provisional figures from Mali’s most recent census in April 1998, the population totaled nearly 9.8 million, which represented a 27 percent increase over the 1987 census total. In July 2004, the U.S. government estimated Mali’s population at about 11.9 million, with an annual growth rate of 2.8 percent. Other estimates place the total population at 12–13 million. The population is predominantly rural (68 percent in 2002), and 5–10 percent of Malians are characterized as nomadic. Overall population density in 2003 was estimated at 10.5 inhabitants per square kilometer, but there are wide regional variations. More than 90 percent of the population lives in the southern part of the country, especially in Bamako, which had more than 1 million inhabitants according to the 1998 census. Mali had an estimated net migration rate of –0.33 migrants per 1,000 people in 2004. About 3 million Malians are believed to reside in Côte d’Ivoire and France. Conversely, according to a 2003 estimate, Mali hosts about 11,000 Mauritanians; most are Fulani herders who routinely engage in cross-border migration. In addition, there are several thousand refugees from Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in Bamako and other urban areas of Mali.

Demography: According to 2004 estimates, about 47 percent of Malians are less than 15 years of age, 50 percent are 15–64 years of age, and 3 percent are 65 and older. The median age is 16.3 years (15.7 male and 16.9 female). The sex ratio for the total population is 0.96 males per female. The birthrate in 2004 was estimated at 47.3 births per 1,000 and the total fertility rate at 6.6 children born per woman. The death rate in 2004 was estimated at 19.1 deaths per 1,000. Estimated life expectancy at birth was 45.3 years total (44.7 for males and 45.9 for females). Mali is estimated to have one of the world’s highest rates of infant mortality: 118 deaths per 1,000 live births according to a 2004 estimate by the U.S. government, but as high as 142 per 1,000 live births according to United Nations sources.

Ethnic Groups: Mali’s population encompasses a number of sub-Saharan ethnic groups, most of which have historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious commonalities. The Bambara are by far the largest single ethnic group. Collectively, the Bambara (36.5 percent in the mid-1990s), Soninké (8.8 percent) and Malinké (6.6 percent), all part of the Mande language group, constitute more than 50 percent of Mali’s population. Other significant groups are the Fulani, or Peul (13.9 percent), Sénoufo (9 percent), Dogon (8 percent), Songhai (7.2 percent), Diola (2.9 percent), and Bobo and Oulé (2.4 percent). In addition, Mali has significant numbers of Tuareg (1.7 percent) and Moors, or Maur (1.2 percent), desert nomads related to the North African Berbers. Mali historically has enjoyed reasonably good inter-ethnic relations, based on a long tradition of coexistence. Nevertheless, some hereditary servitude or bondage relationships persist, according to the U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report for 2003, as do ethnic tensions between the settled Songhai and the nomadic Tuareg in the north.

Languages: Mali’s official language is French, but numerous (40 or more) African languages also are widely used by the various ethnic groups. About 80 percent of Mali’s population can communicate in Bambara, which is the country’s principal lingua franca and marketplace language.

Religion: An estimated 90 percent of Malians are Muslim, mostly Sunni; 9 percent of Malians adhere to indigenous or traditional animist beliefs; and 1 percent are Christian (about two-thirds Roman Catholic and one-third Protestant denominations). Atheism and agnosticism are believed to be rare among Malians, most of whom practice their religion on a daily basis.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on religious freedom, Islam as traditionally practiced in Mali can be characterized as moderate, tolerant, and adapted to local conditions. Women participate in economic, social, and political activity and generally do not wear veils. The constitution establishes a secular state and provides for freedom of religion, and the government largely respects this right. Relations between Muslims and practitioners of minority religious faiths are generally amicable, and foreign missionary groups (both Muslim and non-Muslim) are tolerated.

Education and Literacy: Public education in Mali is in principle provided free of charge and is compulsory for nine years between the ages of seven and 16. The system encompasses six years of primary education beginning at age seven, followed by six years of secondary education, generally divided into two three-year cycles. However, Mali’s actual primary school enrollment rate is low, in large part because families are unable to cover the cost of uniforms, books, supplies, and other fees required to attend even public school. In the 2000–01 school year, primary school enrollment was estimated to include only 61 percent of the appropriate age-group (71 percent of males and 51 percent of females). The primary school completion rate is also low: only 36 percent of students in 2003 (and lower for females). The majority of students reportedly leave school by age 12. The secondary school enrollment rate in the late 1990s was 15 percent (20 percent for males and 10 percent for females).

Government expenditures on education in 2000 constituted about 15.6 percent of total government expenditures and about 2.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). According to Malian government estimates for the 2003–04 school year, Mali had 318 pre-primary institutions with 971 teachers and 35,000 students; 8,714 general primary and secondary institutions with 36,064 teachers and 1,650,803 students; and 37,635 students in tertiary institutions. The education system is plagued by a lack of schools in rural areas, as well as shortages of teachers and materials.

According to U.S. government estimates, the adult literacy rate (defined as those over age 15 who can read and write) was 46.4 percent for the total population in 2003 (53.5 percent for males and 39.6 percent for females). According to United Nations sources, however, the literacy rate is actually much lower—only 27–30 percent overall and as low as 12 percent for females, among the lowest rates in Africa.

Health: Mali is ranked among the world’s poorest nations and, as such, faces numerous health challenges related to poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate hygiene and sanitation. Its health and development indicators rank among the worst in the world. In 2000 only 62–65 percent of the population was estimated to have access to safe drinking water and only 69 percent to sanitation services of some kind; only 8 percent was estimated to have access to modern sanitation facilities. Only 20 percent of the nation’s villages and livestock watering holes had modern water facilities.

Mali is dependent on international development organizations and foreign missionary groups for much of its health care. In 2001 general government expenditures on health constituted 6.8 percent of total general government expenditures and 4.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), totaling only about US$4 per capita at an average exchange rate. Medical facilities in Mali are very limited, especially outside of Bamako, and medicines are in short supply. There were only 5 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants in the 1990s and 24 hospital beds per 100,000 in 1998. In 1999 only 36 percent of Malians were estimated to have access to health services within a five-kilometer radius.

Malaria and other arthropod-borne diseases are prevalent in Mali, as are a number of infectious diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, and tuberculosis. Mali’s population also suffers from a high rate of child malnutrition and a low rate of immunization for childhood diseases such as measles. There were an estimated 140,000 cases of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) reported in 2003, and an estimated 1.9 percent of the adult population was afflicted with HIV/AIDS that year, among the lowest rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Welfare: Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world and has a very low standard of living, ranking 172d out of 175 on the 2003 United Nations Human Development Report, which attempts to measure quality of life. Nevertheless, the government is attempting to reduce poverty and to increase spending on education, health care, and rural development with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other international donor organizations. The Ministry of Promotion of Women, Child, and Family Affairs is working to promote the welfare of children, although child labor and international trafficking in children remain problems. Mali also has developed a national plan to promote the welfare of women by reducing inequities between men and women in education, health, employment, and legal rights.

Last Updated: January 2005

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Mali was first published in 2005. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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