During the rebel takeover of northern Mali in April 2012, many women said they were subjected to rape or sexual assault. Since then, little or no support has come through for these women, say aid workers.
Aminata Touré* was on her way to her uncle’s house in the city of Gao in June 2012 when she was stopped by two men on a motorbike. “I had no choice. They were armed and threatened to kill me,” she said. While one of the men held her baby, the other took her to a nearby bush. “They took me and they did everything they could do, they raped me. Afterwards, they left me in the bush,” she told IRIN.
Since the insurgency began in the north soon after the March 2012 military coup, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered 2,785 cases of sexual and gender-based violence, though its Mali spokesperson, Eduardo Cue, says the real figure is much higher. Most of the cases involved rape; others included forced marriage and sex work.
When insurgents entered Gao they systematically went through each neighbourhood, stealing from some and assaulting others, said residents.
Local journalist and activist Ami Idrissa managed to stay safe by hiding in her house. Others were not so fortunate, she said. “Everyone has a sister or cousin who was raped. Daughters were assaulted in front of their fathers, women in front of their husbands. Many are still traumatized by what they saw or experienced that day,” Idrissa told IRIN.
Many residents told IRIN that members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were usually the perpetrators. MNLA spokespeople in France were unavailable for comment.
When Islamic militant groups arrived soon afterwards, they perpetrated different kinds of abuse, said Idrissa, who was forced to quit her job as a radio host by Islamists who would not tolerate a woman’s voice on the radio.
“MNLA raped women. MUJAO [the Islamist rebel Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa] instead forced women to marry them; in the end their marriages resulted in another system of rape when only one man married the woman and many men participated in the marriage,” she told IRIN.
The number of forced marriages among northerners and insurgents has not been fully documented. A UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) protection team found one case of forced marriage when questioning 105 displaced people in Mopti who hailed from Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. They also uncovered eight rapes, including that of a 13-year-old girl, and 44 cases of sexual abuse.
Gao resident Mouna Awata, whose daughter was arrested for not wearing the hijab, told IRIN: “Girls were arrested, brought to the mayor’s office and then transferred to the prison. That’s where they raped the women. They had mattresses there and everything.”
One father who withheld his name told IRIN his 15-year-old daughter called him from inside the prison in Gao. “She told me there was a naked man waiting for her on the roof. She escaped... that’s when she called me.”
Gao resident Miriam Cissé*, 18, was forced to marry a man twice her age in mid-2012. When she moved to her husband’s house she found out what she had feared all along - that he was part of MUJAO. “He forced me to sleep with him. When I refused he beat me,” she told IRIN. When she finally managed to escape she took a bus to Bamako. Afraid her husband will follow her to the capital she is hoping local NGO Sini Sanuman can help her to find a place to stay.
With little to no administration in the north, there is insufficient support for women who have been abused. Local and international NGOs and UN agencies such as UNICEF, are helping women in the north and south, but resources are limited. UNICEF is supporting community-level child protection committees and is raising awareness of protection norms among social workers to try to avert further incidents of abuse.
Gao-based local NGO GREFFA has set up a clinic giving medical help to survivors of abuse, and help in preventing sexually transmitted diseases at the regional hospital. Survivors also receive medical attention in local clinics, said Gao midwife Mariam Maïga.
Meanwhile, women who fled south to Mopti and Bamako often face financial as well as medical problems. In Bamako Sini Sanuman provides medical and psychological help to survivors of abuse, but its director, Alpha Boubeye, said they could not help northerners who arrive in the capital with their food or rent requirements, "something that they desperately need".
The organization is struggling to keep up with the scale of need. In one Bamako neighbourhood Sini Sanuman identified over 300 cases of sexual assault among women who had arrived from the north since April 2012.
“Before the conflict no one was really tending to women who were victims of sexual abuse. We have had to set up a whole new strategy, training social workers and psychiatrists,” Boubeye told IRIN.
Uncovering the extent of abuse continues to be very difficult in a country where rape is considered shameful.
“Many women do not dare to talk about being raped. They are afraid that their husbands will leave them and that they will be segregated from society,” journalist Idrissa told IRIN. “Before MNLA and MUJAO rape outside the house was not a problem in Mali. The rebels made it an issue.”
“Being raped is a very shameful thing in Mali and our social workers often visit the women many times before they open up," said Boubeye.
And pursuing justice is not even considered an option by many abuse survivors. Touré returned home to her husband in Gao, but she has not pursued a case against her attackers. “I want the men who raped me to go to jail, but I’m ashamed for everyone else to see me,” she told IRIN.
Her focus is to support her family in increasingly difficult humanitarian conditions, she added.
According to Daniel Tessogué, state prosecutor in Bamako, only one case of sexual assault linked to the 2012 conflict is being prepared to go to court.
*not their real names