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The women of Mali offer a path to the future

The story of “Aissatou” started over 12 months ago with her heavily pregnant fleeing from the advancing rebels. At the age of 14 she was only a child herself when she gave birth to her son and arrived in Gao. The rebel forces soon caught up and tore the community to pieces. Aissatou locked herself in her house for two straight days. Only when she emerged was the full reality of the trauma made clear. Her brother-in-law’s hand had been cut off at the wrist – justice in the eyes of the rebels for alleged stealing. Worst still was the crimes and atrocities committed against scores of young girls – including Aissatou’s closest friend “Ines”. The girls of the village – aged in their middle-teens – were taken by force and transported in trucks to the bush where they were raped, abused, and beaten with blunt weapons. Discarded, Ines – a girl of only 14 years – fled and was found fallen in the road by men from the village and brought back to their hospital. This is where Ines told Aissatou her terrible story. Aissatou, on the run again, has not seen Ines since.

A representative from Save the Children Australia made a point of reporting Aissatou’s story. Very few stories that can bear be told, even when victims can be reached. The vast majority of traumas remain unreported and for many their stories are not finished. Despite a fairly comprehensive military victory on part of the Malian’s and the French, UNICEF has recently emphasised that ‘risks to women and children are far from over’ due to prevailing insecurities. While control has been restored to the north, rebel forces have reprised in suicide bombings and guerrilla warfare behind French-Malian lines. With these acts of violence, and in the chaotic disorder that ensues, the disgraceful and humiliating acts of sexual abuse and rape carry on.

Life during war time and under oppressive occupation is exceptionally tough for the disempowered. What does Mali tell us about this issue? What does examining the conflict in through a gendered lens tell us about Mali? What stories must be shared? The history of women in war paints a bleak picture. Our understanding of the role of gender in conflict is fairly underdeveloped, but our most obvious finding so far in the long history of war is that the odds of violence, rape, humiliation and death are stacked overwhelmingly against women. Unfortunately the situation in Mali has not strayed from this sinister trend. Reports of sexual violence and abuse against women have come overwhelmingly from the northern areas of the country which were or have been occupied by the rebels. The brutality described in the stories of the victims is unbearable. According to Save the Children’s perennial report ‘The State of the World’s Women’ Malian women, and subsequently Malian children, rank in as the 7th worst-off in the world in a composite index including healthcare, life-expectancy, sexual and maternal health, socio-political opportunities and education. It is safe to say that Malian women, compared to their male counterparts, appeared to be severely less-resilient to the impending conflict and its aftermath. UNICEF has responded with a stirring report entitled Supporting Women through an Emergency which sets out its developmental agenda in Mali for 2013 with specific reference to increasing the resilience of women. This is welcome news, especially considering this battle-cry from freelance journalist Amma Bonsu which stresses the rise of Islamists in an already patriarchal society severely threatens the country’s strong and industrious women. If Mali is to recover the world must invest in its women.

But how is this achieved when the security situation on the ground is still in doubt? The main provider of physical and strategic security still has to be the French who are adamant that they are going to be leaving soon. Details surrounding an African Union force, UN Peacekeepers, or an EU delegation all remain murky, indistinct, and stink of a situation being held at arm’s length. We also must not disregard reports that the Malian army itself is a threat to the fragile security as to its people. Asking the French to stay brings its own problems with reports of ethnic violence and wanton abuse – which so often haunt peacekeeping interventions – being levelled against the French and Malian government troops themselves. Even if stability continues to improve, the emphasis on the security crisis in the north has meant that aid projects are being heavily emphasised in these areas. The EU said it will come to the assistance of women who have been a victim of abuse by releasing some of the 250 million Euros of development aid it froze after the coup in Mali in March last year – but what of the women falling ill to the reprisals and attacks in the south? Arguably, the most severe stories are still coming from the north. Only last week fresh stories of rapes, stoning, lashes and forced marriages were reported. Unfortunately, regardless of a prevailing north-south dichotomy it seems that scarce resources are going to be out of reach to many thousands of women and children all around this fragile country, in this year and into the future.

With the military victory led by the French, some improvements can be observed. One cannot help but be warmed by the sight of the recently-liberated women of Timbuktu rejoicing in acts of self-expression that for so long has be quashed. Dancing and singing, and wearing what they wanted. Talking to whoever they wanted. Inspirational businesswomen and musicians have also returned making a future for Mali where women see their quality of life improve more viable. Some commentators are fearful that an early exit from the intervening ground troops threaten to unravel all that has been gained. Amma Bonsu is of the opinion that “an occupying force must remain in Mali until the frayed interim government is replaced with an elected government committed to educating girls and expanding the rights of women”. It is a logical request, especially when we must remember that the current incumbents in Bamako were installed by coup rather than ballot. The issue remains of political will – what organisation powerful enough but also willing to stay longer than is politically viable? François Hollande has his victory – which he hopes he can translate to political approval back at home – why risk this by staying and giving the public approval gains he has made through the intervention an opportunity to fester and decay?

The Department of International Development (DFID) cites a statistic that should frighten anyone to the core: one woman in every three is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. These acts of physical violence and the psychological traumas that result from them are, despite their severity, too frequently left undiscovered. In the midst of the upheaval, destruction and the state of exception found during war the crisis facing the world’s women only escalates. The societal and structural factors that drive and manifest gendered violence are even more elusive. Cultural practices, historic norms and societal conventions, some enshrined in law, such as forced marriages, gendered hierarchies, and restricted access to education and work are complex and entrenched vehicles for violence.

These systems are present globally. Correspondingly, the fight for equality has to be fought globally. It extends everywhere; from debates concerning succession in the British monarchy and number of female MPs sitting in Westminster to the issue of the demobilisation of child soldiers in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 40% of child soldiers are thought to be girls yet Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Programmes (DDRs) only see girls making up 5% of total enrolment. This missing 35% – the girls in their thousands that are disproportionately excluded from these schemes – meet far grimmer fates than the boys that suffered alongside them. In Mali, Britain has yet to fully recognise the humanitarian blight that is unfolding. Like Hollande, senior politicians in Britain are more concerned with not becoming embroiled into another lengthy occupation – an obvious hangover from Afghanistan. When intervention and involvement is considered seriously it is only considered in military terms – of defeating jihadists and winning a battle in a broader geo-political war on terror. The plight of the most vulnerable is an issue that does not resonate loudly in Britain today.

Although we can always hope for the future. As International Women’s Day approaches journalists, political commentators, staff of national and international development agencies, as well as politicians, have an opportunity to advance our awareness of women in war and this long underappreciated dynamic of human conflict. The United Nations has taken the approach of positive canvassing this year. Instead of focusing on the terror described above, the UN has compiled statistics on why empowering women is so important – not simply as a moral cause for equality but as a way of alleviating poverty. For example; “if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent, lifting 100-150 million out of hunger”. So can Mali show us any evidence that it will rise out of this conflict with women in greater stead? World War I saw Western women gain the vote, and the parliament of post-genocide Rwanda has the highest % of women MPs of any country in the world. Concentrating on women in conflict can not only reveal structural and systematic failures; it can also be an opportunity to empower women and realise their full capacity as a force for positive change.


March 8this International Women’s Day. For over a century men and women across the globe have marked this day with everything from acts of mass civil disobedience to fund-raising cake sales. This year a matriarch of West-African music – Angelique Kidjo – will perform at London’s Southbank Centre. She will be supported by Mali’s very own rising star Fatoumata Diawara.

Angelique has for years worked tirelessly with other artists to strengthen the hand of the world’s women through. For a detail of the kind of causes she supports please visit the webpage of the ‘Half the Sky’movement which is dedicated to “Turning Oppression into an Opportunity for Women Worldwide”.

To promote this the Mali Interest Hub is offering a free copy of Angelique Kidjo’s live music album. All you have to do is answer this question:

For what album did Angelique Kidjo win a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2008?

Competition closes Sunday 10th of March. Contact us here with the answer and we’ll let the winner know on the 11th of March.

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