World Vision is extremely concerned about the plight of girls and young women in Northern Mali, amid growing reports of young women being beaten, sexually assaulted and forced to become 'brides' for armed opposition groups.
"The stories we are hearing from these girls are truly horrifying," said Chance Briggs, World Vision County Director for Mali. "Those who have escaped with their families have suffered severe traumatic experiences. Some of those who did not flee will have even worse stories to tell."
In recent days, World Vision staff have been hearing from girls and women who have fled Northern Mali. Some of these include:
Sata's story was told to us by a woman called Namina. In December, Namina escaped from Timbuktu, the world- famous city that fell to armed opposition groups, who imposed their own strict social and religious controls on the populace. Namina left with her three young daughters and six other children from her village. Her neighbors and their 16-year old daughter Sata were left behind after Sata was kidnapped.
"I saw a group (of rebels) come to the house and take Sata by force," Namina reveals. "They gave her parents CFA 10,000 ($20) to 'marry' Sata. But the parents said no. The girl was weeping and tried to tear herself away from her captors. Her mother was weeping. But they came with guns. Sata was taken."
Namina said a few days later Sata managed to get hold of a mobile phone while her captors were away. She was able to call her family and told them that she was placed in a house preparing food for her abductors. Initially they told her that she was the wife of one man but later told her she was to be 'shared'. Sata claimed multiple men had raped her. Sata had been warned not to try to escape or she would be killed and her family targeted. Her parents did not dare go to the camp to try and rescue her but they stayed behind hoping for news.
Fatou, 16, also fled Timbuktu with her mother.
"One day, my mother sent me to the market. I knew that girls were supposed to wear a scarf to cover our heads. But that day I was not wearing one and the 'rebellion police' saw me. They said they were going to give me a lesson. They beat me up badly."
Fatou went on to say that before she fled, she saw other girls caught without scarves beaten with a stick and given 100 lashes as punishment.
Boys also a target
People fleeing their homes in northern Mali also gave accounts of young boys who had been forcibly taken and "enrolled' in armed opposition group training camps. We were told boys were bought for a much heftier price than girls - CFA 200,000-400,000 ($400-800).
Namina told World Vision staff of a young boy she knows named Mohammed who was recruited as a child soldier. "These boys are very traumatized because they are taught how to use guns and how to fight. The children also see people whose hands or feet are being cut off [by rebels]."
Urgent measures need to be taken to protect Mali's children from threats like these. In addition, in some past conflicts, the traumatic events of war witnessed by children have been compounded by abuses by the forces meant to protect them. To ensure that the children of Mali do not face additional pain, World Vision is calling on governments to ensure that child protection training is given to and that there are systems of accountability for all military personnel operating in Mali, both the Malian army and outside forces.
"As similar stories of children come to light, more and more of them will need support," added Briggs. "World Vision is working in partnership with UNICEF and other child focused agencies to train UN and NGO staff to provide immediate psycho-social support when they come across such cases. Strengthening the Malian Government's ability to provide support for these children at local levels must also be a key priority."
Chance Briggs, Director World Vision Mali is based in Bamako and is available for interviews. Please contact Lauren Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org) +1.206.310.5476 for requests.