At the Bas Fond landfill in Mopti, residents sift through the rubbish, the dregs of other people's consumption. In a country as poor as Mali, they have to dig deep to find something for the keeping. The people living around this squalid waste disposal area are the poorest of the poor. Yet 16-year-old Fatoumata Traoré* would rather stay here than return to Tonka, the town in Mali's Timbuktu region she was forced to flee.
She cradles 5-month old Moussa as she recounts the horror of the day last year when she was abducted from her family home by members of the rebel group that had taken control of northern Mali.
Fatoumata found herself prisoner in an abandoned house with 15 other girls. They were gang-raped for a week.
“My mother had gone to the market. I was doing the housework. I heard gunfire. I ran to pick up all the cups. I wanted to get my brothers into the house. They jumped over our gate, into the yard,” Fatoumata recalls.
“They grabbed me and I resisted all I could. I still have pain in my wrists and arms from being dragged by them,” she says. “They took me to an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. There were 15 other girls there. Some were younger than me, maybe 13.”
She continues, “They didn't beat us. They raped us. One group would come in and rape us while the other stood guard outside. They brought animals for us to eat. The meat wasn't properly cooked. It lasted a week. Then they threw us out and left.”
A wave of sexual violence
Women and girls have been the main victims of the conflict in northern Mali brought about by the region's takeover in 2012 by Islamist and secessionist rebels. Not only did their imposition of fundamentalist Islamic law force drastic changes in their lives; they also were the targets of what is emerging as a wave of sexual violence.
Now, with the fighting subsided, women make up the majority of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in towns in the central and southern parts of the country.
Fatoumata lives with her 38-year-old mother in a shelter pieced together from straw and black plastic sheeting on the edge of Bas Fond. So poor are mother and daughter that they don't eat every day. They take turns breastfeeding Moussa. They do not know where Fatoumata's father is – he abandoned the family home after he learned of his daughter's rape.
Aïssata Cissé, an outreach worker in Mopti with NGO Family Care International (FCI), says that the father's disappearance is typical of a society where rape is the ultimate taboo.
“In Mali, when there's been a rape it is dealt with inside the family. There is no going to a tribunal or to the police,” she explains. “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.”
Support for survivors
Fatoumata's plight came to the attention of FCI after she gave birth to Moussa in a Mopti clinic this past February. “She did not know she was pregnant. She had even thought the contractions were a digestive problem,” says Ms. Cissé, who arranged counselling and payment of medical expenses for Fatoumata.
Soon, with UNICEF support, FCI expects to be able to make cash transfers available to 1,500 vulnerable girls and women who are survivors of the conflict.
UNICEF child protection specialist Moussa Sidibé says Mali's displaced women are dealing with a wide range of physical and emotional scars. Many are also in deep economic hardship as a result of having fled the support of their home towns and villages.
“This conflict has taken a terrible toll on women,” he says. “Some of the displaced women suffered untold horrors before they fled from the north. We are talking of hundreds of traumatized women who ought to be receiving counselling.”
Mr. Sidibé explains that the struggle does not end when they find a new home. “Once they arrive in a place like Mopti, they face tremendous challenges” he says. “Many find themselves as heads of their households because their husbands have stayed in the north or disappeared. The need to eat, feed their children and pay for accommodation pushes them to the most extreme solutions, like prostitution.”
Amid the need for rapid crisis support for up to 350,000 displaced people in Mali – most of whom are women and children – UNICEF has opted to play a coordinating role, drawing on and boosting existing expertise in local NGOs. FCI supports and counsels 100 destitute girls and women like Fatoumata. It also runs information sessions to alert displaced women to the issue of gender-based violence.
For Fatoumata and Moussa, the focus has to be on moving forward – on giving the young mother enough space and the financial wherewithal to concentrate on building a future.
As the neighbours' teenage girls and other children play on a rope hanging from a tree in the Bas Fond slum, Fatoumata puts her mind to a very grown-up question: What would help you put this horrible event behind you?
“If we could have a proper place to live, for me and my mum and Moussa, and enough to eat – that's all we need,” she says.
* Names have been changed