Just a handful of the hundreds of Malian children believed to have been drawn into the country’s recent conflict are formally receiving help. Bamako authorities say the involvement of children in conflict is a new phenomenon in the country, and they are striving to protect the minors under a fledgling set of regulations.
When Islamist groups Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Afria (MUJAO) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and rebels from the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized northern Mali after the March 2012 coup, an unknown number of children were recruited, sometimes forcibly, into the armed movements.
Children as young as seven found themselves in the rebel ranks, said aid group Watchlist in a June report, which explained that the minors were tasked with manning road blocks, cooking and running errands, and many were trained to use weapons. Many girls were raped or forced into marriage.
The recruitment was catalysed by poverty, with many children being lured by the promise of money. Many are said to have been from small villages outside the main northern Mali cities. Others were introduced into the rebel ranks by their families, said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) West Africa researcher.
“A significant proportion of the children seem to have come from communities that practice a more strict form of Islam,” explained Dufka.
In the weeks that followed the January French-led invasion to halt the Islamist advance onto Bamako, Malian troops battling alongside the French showed on national television two children said to have been among the Islamist fighters. Experts pointed out that the display portrayed an ignorance of child rights; the pair was later transferred to the capital for care.
“Mali had never experienced the phenomenon of child soldiers,” said Bakary Traoré, director of the country’s child welfare department. “The first cases of child soldiers were two children who were shown on television by the Malian army - something that we immediately decried because children should not be displayed like war trophies. It’s a violation of their rights.”
Twenty-three children between the ages of 12 and 17 are now being cared for in two centres in Bamako, where they were referred after Mali’s government, in February, signed an inter-ministerial circular on protecting children involved in conflict. Children at the shelters are clothed, fed and offered psychosocial care.
In July, Bamako also signed an agreement with the UN system in Mali calling for its troops to hand over children caught up in conflict for protection.
Four of the 23 children in the shelters in Bamako are facing charges of threatening state security, rebellion, criminal association, and threating and conspiring against the state. They were charged after being caught in the battlefields of northern Mali and briefly detained before being transferred to the shelters.
Traoré told IRIN that the four were subjected to a court process due to a general lack of knowledge in country about the rights of children involved in conflict. “Because they were found in the battlefield with weapons, the judges immediately considered them criminals. Instead of treating them as victims, they were taken to be criminals.”
His department is seeking to have their trial dropped.
HRW’s Dufka said that Malian authorities and international aid groups failed to act in time to document the recruitment of children by armed groups or to set up measures for their release from the rebel ranks.
“When the war intensified in January, the protocol governing the demobilization process had not been established; neither were reception centres for child combatants nor the sensitization of commanders of the Malian and other armies involved in the offensive,” Dufka told IRIN.
“As a result, when the children were captured by the armed forces, they often didn't know what to do with them. They were consequently treated as adults, and some endured abuses in the process.”
The whereabouts of the children who were not transferred to the care centres in Bamako remains uncertain. Some are thought to have fled with the militants or re-joined their families after the Islamists were dislodged from the main northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
Others were killed when Islamist targets were bombarded. It is also thought that some who were recruited from neighbouring countries have returned home, according to HRW.
“The reality is that a lot of information is still unknown to us,” said Christina Torsein, a child protection specialist with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Mali.
“We are still finding out a lot about the context here. The  children we have today thankfully have not had much time with the armed groups. Their reintegration, we hope, will be easier,” she said, explaining that UNICEF is setting up programmes for vulnerable children, including those who have been associated with armed groups as well as their families and communities.
The government authorities, UNICEF and other aid groups hope to eventually reunite the children with their parents. However, persistent insecurity in certain northern Mali regions and displacement caused by the conflict are some of the hurdles to reunion. Attacks and violence recently erupted in Mali’s three main northern cities.
“In Kidal, for instance, there are still pockets of insecurity. It’s difficult even for humanitarian workers to have proper access,” said Sékou Diarra, a child protection officer with UNICEF.
“There is also the issue of family tracing. With the displacements, some of the families are not even in Mali. So we have to find them where they are,” he said.
The child protection experts explained that they were working on ways to offer greater help to communities when they eventually reunite the children with their families, noting that individual child assistance would be a short-term measure and would appear discriminatory to the other children and families in a particular locality.
“One of the challenges is that communities as a whole and families as a whole need assistance. You can’t just send one child back with a package of support. You need also to think about what are the needs in the communities in terms of school, and water and sanitation, maternal health,” UNICEF’s Torsein said. “It’s not all about sending the child back to the village.”
Mali, one of Africa’s poorest nations, faces a series of arduous tasks, including restoring stability, reviving the economy, improving governance, tackling corruption and promoting reconciliation.
“The whole country faces development challenges. The development indicators for maternal mortality, illiteracy, child mortality are very worrying. It is an absolute priority for Mali and its international partners to address the challenges that also disproportionately affect children,” HRW’s Dufka said.