8 March 2013 | Julia Blocher
‘Women’s voices must be heard!’ – Q&A with analysts on mission in Mali
Elizabeth Rushing, IDMC’s Country Analyst for Mali, and Sophie Crozet, our Legal and Training Officer, are on mission in Mali, undertaking IDP protection training and research. They met with four women and their children who were forced to flee their homes in Gao, a northern town that has been the site of fierce fighting since armed jihadist groups took over much of the north of Mali in 2012.
For International Women’s Day on 8 March, we had some questions for our colleagues, who recounted the struggles and feats of these brave, resilient Malian women.
What has been the impact of the situation in Mali on the lives of women?
SOPHIE: Women here are facing terrible challenges. The imposition of their own version of “Sharia law,” which indeed is removed from most interpretations, is completely new to them; suddenly they cannot leave their homes, have contact with men, and must cover themselves with scarves. The women I spoke to feel humiliated, one particularly described how in her town, women with big behinds were being forced to buy stools to sit on when shopping in the marketplace, so as not to ‘offend’ people when they bent over. As one woman said, ‘‘there’s no joy allowed, we aren’t even allowed to celebrate weddings with our daughters in the traditional way, with music and dance.’’
What are the key challenges facing women in this context?
LIZZIE: On top of the harsh rules that they are facing, there have been countless reports of sexual violence. The women we spoke to had all witnessed or heard of rape, gang rape, and forced marriages, sometimes of very young girls.
SOPHIE: They told us how rape often happens in front of the victims family members, which is a clear indication that these armed groups are using sexual violence as a means to humiliate. Women and girls are often attacked again and again, or even face the unimaginable horror of being forced to marry their assailant. The abuse and threat of violence is forcing them to make the impossible decision to flee their homes; as one woman described to me: ‘’I had to flee with my daughter and nieces because I was afraid they would be raped!’’
What was their experience of flight?
SOPHIE: Being forced to flee your home, and everything you know, is one of the most traumatic experiences someone can have. These women have had to leave everything and everyone they know behind and often make this journey alone; the women we spoke to had to leave their husbands behind. Then, on top of that, they faced dangers on the road – such as the risk of being attacked at checkpoints – and had to sell everything they had for the bus tickets. Some of the women we spoke to waited for two weeks at the bus station to make the arduous five day journey to Bamako.
What was living in displacement like for them?
LIZZIE: Life is difficult for them in Bamako. One woman I spoke with initially managed to find refuge with family members or friends, but after many months she had to start renting an apartment when they could no longer support her and her children. She cannot always pay her rent, and said that the landlords want them to leave. Some IDPs have started changing apartments regularly to avoid being evicted for not paying rent, and many fear that landlords will stop taking in IDPs. Many women have no income, no employment opportunities, and find it difficult to pay even for their girls to go to school; “nothing is free in Bamako,” they say. While the women we met were asking the neighbours for help to make ends meet, they said others have to resort to prostitution just to feed their children.
Is there hope for the future?
LIZZIE: All they want is to go home, but right now they are too afraid. They are also waiting for the government, police, public infrastructure, and social services to be reinstalled, which will take months. They just want to build back the small businesses they had before the conflict and return to living in peace and dignity.
SOPHIE: An important next step for many of them is to be healed psychologically, particularly those who were victims of sexual violence. It is essential that women are included in any national reconciliation efforts. As our very resilient and empowered friends from Gao said strongly: “Women’s voices must be heard!”
For more information on the situation in Mali, read our latest briefing papers