WMC News & Features

International Criminal Court weighs Mali sexual assault cases

Wmc Features Awa Mali Anna Pujol Mazzini 020719
Awa at a women's safehouse in Bamako. Photo by Anna Pujol-Mazzini.

Bamako, Mali — When armed men waving black flags entered her northern Mali village in 2012, Awa was selling palm oil outside her front door. Within weeks, she had watched the al-Qaeda–linked jihadists take over the town hall, impose the veil on women, and beat, kill, and chop hands off friends and strangers alike.

Fearful, Awa (who asked that her real name not be used for safety reasons) decided to leave, taking her siblings, cousins, and mother with her on a three-day bus journey to the capital, Bamako, where tens of thousands of northerners had found refuge. After getting out unharmed, even receiving help from armed groups they encountered as they fled, Awa considered herself extremely lucky.

Mali descended into conflict in 2012 after Tuareg rebels, who had long felt excluded by the national government, based in the south, launched an offensive and quickly took over key cities in the north. Jihadist groups such as Ansar-Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who had originally helped the rebellion, started driving out the Tuareg as disagreements over how to run the occupied regions intensified.

Weeks later, Awa went back north to pick up some of her belongings — and to get an idea of what her village had turned into under Islamist occupation. There, her luck ended as unidentified armed men stopped her bus and separated the men from the women. "That’s when I met the people who would rape me,” Awa said over echoes of crying babies from the nearby rooms of a central Bamako safe house for victims of violence. She does not know who assaulted her, but all armed groups are thought to have participated in sexual violence.

She briefly described what she remembered: four women sitting on the bus, including herself, each being taken away to be raped. The first thoughts that flooded her as the ordeal ended: Had she caught diseases? Would she get pregnant?

The shame quickly followed. “I was ashamed of telling people I’d been raped. I didn’t tell my parents,” she said in Bambara through a translator as she played with a green, yellow, and red pearl bracelet: the colors of Mali. She did try to tell her mother at one point, but the words would not come out of her mouth: “I said I was in a group and they raped the women.”

Sexual violence survivors in the vast West African nation are often rejected by families and communities, and blamed for their assaults. Rapists seldom get convicted. Instead, victims are often made to marry their attacker. So like Awa, they stay silent, not willing to risk losing everything. But in the seventh year of the conflict, and despite a peace agreement, experts say violence against women is on the rise, in a climate of near-total impunity.

Now Malian authorities have surrendered an alleged member of Islamist armed group Ansar Dine and former chief of Timbuktu’s Islamic police, Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, to the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture and rape. This case could see survivors testify in court for the first time and set precedent for the prosecution of sexual violence cases in The Hague.

Because of the stigma, statistics on sexual violence in the Malian conflict are hard to come by — often, the only women who get counted are those who ask for urgent medical help. “But the majority of them don’t even ask for help,” according to Bernadette Sene, the head of the U.N. mission’s women’s protection unit in Mali. The mission has documented around 20 such cases per year, “which absolutely does not reflect reality,” she said.

Wmc Features Mali Makeshift Camp Dialakorobougou Anna Pujol Mazzini 020719
Women who fled violence in central Mali sit at the entrance to a makeshift camp in Dialakorobougou. Photo by Anna Pujol-Mazzini.

Lawyers and women’s rights activists in the country talk about the “systematic rape” of women during the jihadist occupation of Mali’s north in 2012. The nature of the abuses has evolved as the conflict continued: First, the rebel takeover brought gang rapes. “Every time a village or a town was attacked, collective rapes would follow during the armed groups’ occupation,” according to Moctar Mariko, the president of the Malian Association for Human Rights and a lawyer for survivors of sexual violence.

Once the jihadists took over, women and girls were forced into marriage by the Islamists in an attempt to legitimize the violence. Often, they endured weeks of daily rapes before being divorced. In some cases documented by rights groups, fighters would pool money together to pay a woman’s bride price, and the friends of the official husband would take turns to visit, and rape her, at night. In others, women would be forcefully married, the marriage consummated, and then divorced several times in one day.

A peace agreement was signed in 2015 between the government, rebel groups, and pro-government militias. Armed Islamist groups had lost control over the main cities after a French-led intervention in early 2013 and the conflict somewhat subsided. But the violence against women did not.

Tribunals, police forces, and state services had all but collapsed, leading to near-total lawlessness while armed groups multiplied. Human rights groups representing over 100 victims brought two class-action lawsuits to attempt to bring to justice perpetrators of sexual violence in the conflict, but the cases fell apart as when they were sent back to northern tribunals unable to handle them. To this day, there is no functioning justice system in the country’s north.

Nearly 2,000 cases of violence against women were documented by women’s organizations across the country in 2018, a 27 percent rise from the previous year. “It’s a growing phenomenon,” said Fatimata Toure, director of the GREFFA women’s group in Gao, the biggest city in the north. She investigates sexual violence in the region and helps survivors access justice, medical help, and psychological support.

“Increasingly, people are accepting to talk about this. It is a topic we did not dare talk about,” she added.

With a recent spike in violence in Mali’s central Mopti region, where the Malian Association for Human Rights estimates that 1,200 civilians were killed since 2017, the threats to women have once again multiplied.

Referring to violence in Mopti, Sene said, “Most women have stopped going out, even to the market, because they’re scared of being raped. So they send boys to gather wood and water in their place. This also raises a new issue: that of the recruitment of children by terrorist groups” as boys go out in the bush where jihadist groups are present.

Meanwhile, assaults like that of Awa have become commonplace. After a visit to Mali last October, Alioune Tine, the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in the country, concluded that “no woman can board a bus between Gao and Bamako without risk of physical or sexual violence.”

But even at the height of the conflict, few organizations, let alone state entities, helped survivors of sexual violence. Today, most projects designed to help these women have simply ended as funding has run out. When we spoke, Awa had not seen her psychologist in five years, like most of the women who went through the Bamako safe house. Many tried to rebuild their lives on their own, moved cities, and changed phone numbers. “All the victims from the early days, we’ve lost track of them,” Toure, from GREFFA, said.

New efforts are now underway to bring justice to the women. A truth commission, which started work in 2016, has already gathered 10,000 testimonies of victims of violence in the conflicts that have plagued Mali since its independence from France in 1960. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents in Timbuktu, the ancient city of learning on the edge of the Sahara desert, were women.

Now, some of these women are preparing to testify against the Timbuktu Islamic police chief who allowed some of the forced marriages and crimes that led to “the sexual enslavement of women” at the International Criminal Court. Al Hassan’s trial, if charges are maintained after a May confirmation hearing (to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to move to trial), will be the first to bring a prosecution for persecution on the grounds of gender.

In the meantime, for victims old and new, there is little to rely upon outside of themselves. “There are no psychologists outside of the capital. For victims in the regions, it really is basic support,” the truth commission’s president, Ousmane Oumarou Sidibe, says. “There is nothing in place for people in serious need.”

Awa still wakes up in the middle of the night, frightened, she says, pulling on her top’s long red sleeves — an outfit that could have landed her in prison had she stayed in Timbuktu after the jihadist takeover. But speaking out would mean losing everything. So she sits on her Chinese-built motorbike to go home to her toddler, and to a husband who will never know what she went through. For her, this is a small price to pay to lead a normal life.

More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International
More articles by Tag: Criminal justice, sexual assault, Africa



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.