Mali in Crisis: FCI helping survivors of gender-based violence

Adama Sanogo is Program Officer at FCI-Mali, working at our national office in Bamako and supervising FCI’s programs in Mopti, a city on the Niger River an 8-hour drive to the north.

Over the past two years, northern Mali has suffered a series of repeated and increasingly devastating crises. Long-term drought that has plagued the Sahel region of Mali and its neighboring countries – the area that borders on the Sahara desert – led to a dramatic rise in food insecurity in 2011; this was followed in 2012 by a worsening security situation, culminating in an invasion of armed rebel groups that declared the independence of the country’s three northernmost regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. In March 2012, the national government in Bamako was overthrown in a military coup, and fighting between the military and the northern rebels continued into 2013.

The result has been a humanitarian disaster, as nearly half a million Malians fled their homes to escape fighting and hunger. The city of Mopti, where FCI has been implementing adolescent sexual and reproductive health programs for several years, is the gateway to the northern part of the country, and it has seen a massive influx of people displaced from the north, seeking refuge or transit to other parts of the countries.

Training gender-based violence ‘focal points,’ Socoura village, near Mopti

To help address this crisis, in a post-coup environment in which it was difficult or impossible for international agencies to work with an unstable new government, UNICEF asked FCI’s team in Mopti to take on emergency projects to provide support to the many women who had experienced gender-based violence when war convulsed their home region, and to help protect the rights of children among the large displaced population.

Working in partnership with local grassroots organizations, FCI supported the formation of 10 “protection teams,” in Mopti and more than 30 villages in the surrounding rural areas, to identify women and children who had been survivors of gender-based violence and to refer them for medical care and psychological support. About three dozen health care workers in the area were trained in how to provide appropriate care to survivors of sexual violence. At a women’s center in Mopti, the project provides a safe space where social services are provided, children have a place to play, and theater programs (featuring young people from FCI’s adolescent health programs) help to raise awareness about issues of gender-based violence.

The team psychologist and social workers also visit women and children in their homes when needed. “In Mali,” says FCI outreach worker Aïssata Cissé, “when there’s been a rape it is dealt with inside the family. There is no going to a tribunal or to the police. Often girls do not even tell their mothers what has happened. If it becomes known that a girl has been raped, she will have a problem. Even at school, her friends or other pupils will tease her.”

During 2013, this FCI program has provided emergency financial aid to more than 1,600 displaced families that have taken refuge in the Mopti region, and has provided medical, social, and psychological services to 200 women and children who had fallen victim to sexual violence. Here are three of their stories:

Nana, 35 years old, from Timbuktu:

“I sell cosmetics. One day, seven Islamist rebels came into my shop and they burned all the wigs and cosmetics. I was wearing a wig, so three of the men beat me with a whip, and kicked and punched me. Then they drove me to their base, and held me for three days. Every night, three men raped me.

“I was released because the village chief intervened. But I had nothing more to do in Timbuktu. I had no livelihood since my business had gone up in smoke, and I was humiliated. So with the help of my older brother, I managed to get to Mopti.

“When I arrived in Mopti, I became very sick with sexually-transmitted infections. I had back pains, and terrible pain from being punched in the stomach, and especially from the gang rape violence I was subjected to during those three days. For me, I felt like it was all over.

“One day in April 2013, I met two women who worked for UNICEF and Family Care International to identify displaced people who were survivors of violence. They interviewed me, and arranged for me to receive medical care from the Sominé Dolo Hospital in Mopti, and psychosocial care from the Family Care International psychologist within their project financed by UNICEF.

“Since I have benefited from these treatments, I feel like I did before the attacks. I see that there is hope in front of me, that I can continue to live. I am free in my movements, I present myself as I want to, and I wear wigs.  I can only thank FCI-Mali and its partner UNICEF, who allowed me to start over and live a happy life.”

Ada, 50 years old, from the village of Douentza (northeast of Mopti):

“When the rebels came to Douentza in October 2012, they shot in the air at the entrance to the town where I lived with my children: my daughter Tata, 13 years old, and my sons Moussa, 20 years old, and Amadou, 10 years old. I am a widow, and I have heart problems that cause me to faint at even the slightest of loud noise.

“Two rebels came to our house. I offered them my belongings but they didn’t want them. They tied up my two sons, Moussa and Amadou, and raped my daughter in front of me. I fainted two times. When they finished their dirty work, they took my two sons with them and kept them hostage for three days. They let them go after the chief of Douentza intervened.

“I fled with my children for Mopti. I stayed with my uncle, who provided some medical care for my daughter. After the incident she was very quiet, didn’t speak to anyone, barely ate, and refused any help. She didn’t want to think about what happened.

“At the slightest noise, I faint. I have no ways to take care of my children’s health, and my uncle no longer has the means. Every night I relive the nightmare. I don’t know how much longer I can stand this. I need help.”

An FCI protection team found Ada and her family and referred them for medical, social, and psychological treatment.

Dada, from Bambaramoudé (Timbuktu):

“After the war, my husband, my children and I left Timbuktu. We had a very difficult time on the journey. We were attacked by an armed group who stole all our belongings. The attack on Konna (a town an hour north of Mopti) arrived just as we did, so we retraced our steps. We spent three days in the bush without water or food. After the French liberation of Konna, we continued on our way towards Sévaré (a village near Mopti). It was very difficult for us. In Sévaré, I am staying with the family of my deceased grandmother. We live day-to-day –  I didn’t know how I would survive all of these hardships.”

On a Friday afternoon in June, 2013, Dada left her 9-month-old son, Hamadi, with her oldest daughter, 11-year-old Aicha, so she could go to fetch water from the well. Aicha was also watching over her mother’s stall where she sold dried fish and fried sweet potatoes. When Aicha made a sale, she placed the money on the mat where Hamadi was playing. Suddenly, a piercing scream rang out. The baby was crying as hard as he could, writhing in pain and vomiting. When Dada returned from the well, Aicha said that nothing had happened — Hamadi had suddenly started to cry as he was playing. Dada asked Aicha how much fish and potatoes she had sold; she said she had made about 350 CFA francs (72 US cents). Counting up the money, Dada found only 300 CFA — a 50 CFA coin was missing. She examined Hamadi,and realized that he had swallowed the missing coin. “Oh my God!” she screamed. “What am I going to do? I don’t even provide enough for my children, and now this disaster. What am I going to do?”

“I started asking around for help, and was able to raise 16,000 CFA (US$33). I brought Hamadi to the Sominé Dolo Hospital in Mopti. After a consultation with a pediatrician and reviewing the results of the x-rays, it turned out that the coin was lodged in his stomach. They referred Hamadi to the Gabriel Touré Hospital in Bamako, 400 miles away, so he could be operated on to remove the coin that might kill him.

Hamadi, after his successful surgery

“Desperate and stunned, I returned to the house and waited for my son to die. I then learned that there was a local NGO who was helping displaced persons. I went to see this NGO, and they directed me to Family Care International, which helped me get him the care he needed, with the help of another NGO in Bamako, Sini Sanuman (Healthy Tomorrow). Hamadi was operated on by the NGO’s pediatrician. He was saved from death, and we returned to Mopti the next day. My husband, myself, and everyone who helped us cannot at this moment afford the amount of support, which cost more than 300,000 CFA (over US$600). When my parents and I set out to thank the 2 NGOs, they both said they received funding from another organization that works for children around the world: UNICEF. We will never be able to give enough thanks to these generous organizations and hope to God that they will always exist to continue saving the lives of thousands of children.”

While the fighting in northern Mali has lessened, the refugee situation in Mopti remains serious, and FCI’s work there continues. To learn more about this partnership between FCI and UNICEF to provide services to survivors of gender-based violence, click here.

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