'Their untold stories eat away at them': Rape and the women of Mali
In late September, a Malian woman told UN workers that she had been raped, and identified four Chadian soldiers—UN peacekeepers—as her rapists, according to a BBC report. A UN spokesman issued a statement a few days later, reaffirming the organization’s zero commitment policy against sexual abuse and calling on the Chadian government to fully investigate the matter.
But citizens in the northern city of Gao told the BBC that “a group of Chadian soldiers” had raped “several women” that day. The September 19 attack, they said, took place in a room adjoining a bar in the center of the city. And while several women were allegedly raped, no one else has come forward to report the attack.
Fear has muted the citizens of Gao. The city has been a hotbed of rebel activity since March 2012, when insurgents seized the northern part of the country and overthrew the president following a coup. Hundreds of human rights abuses against civilians have been perpetrated across the country, including rape, torture, abductions, and murder, and although international human rights organizations have said rebels are mostly responsible for the attacks, citizens have also pointed fingers at Malian soldiers and other foreign troops serving in the country.
Regardless, there is a common thread in the pattern of attacks: The victims usually stay silent.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that it registered 2,785 cases of gender-based and sexualized violence between March 2012 and May 2013, but Eduard Cue, its Mali spokesman, has said the real figure is much higher.
“Rape is something people don’t talk about in this area,” said Rachelle Djangone Mian, Mali director of UN Women, an organization dedicated to global gender equality, in a UN Women report. “Imagine what the actual number of women and girls raped is.”
UN Women undertook a survey to document sexualized violence against women and girls in Mali, and wrote in January that many victims of sexualized violence were unwilling to come forward. The organization said it was able to interview only 51 survivors for its report.
“Rape victims in Gao, as in other occupied regions in Mali, are tortured by what they have gone through,” the UN Women report says. “Their untold stories eat away at them. They are rejected by their families and are left with limited protection. They become even more vulnerable than they were (as a result of the armed conflict) before their brutal attacks. They carry the burden of both their oppressors and that of the community which failed to protect them from the assaults.”
One Malian girl told researchers for the UN Women report:
The rebels were just at the corner and watching me. When I came out, they forced me in their vehicle and chained my two arms. They were four in the vehicle and they took me to a dark area. Three other girls were also there. They raped us during two nights and each time they came in groups of three, four, and sometimes five.
On October 11, International Day of the Girl Child, the U.K.-based organization Plan International released a report, “Because I am a girl: The state of the world’s girls 2013,” that said that in the past 18 months in Mali, especially in the north, “girls [had] been sexually abused or forced to marry people. Those who became pregnant have been stigmatized by their own communities and have had to hide or run away.”
One 18-year-old girl was taken forcibly from her house and held captive for six months by armed insurgents, the report says.
My only occupation, all the time I was held captive, was to prepare their meals, do their laundry and meet their demands for sex. [Once the kidnappers fled] I was free. However, I continued to live [with] the shame and stigma of what I endured—particularly in the forms of hostile reactions I received from youths in the neighborhood.
Alpha Boubeye, director of a local organization on helping victims of sexual abuse told the UN’s IRIN news service that the group’s social workers often visit the women “many times before they open up.”
“Being raped is a very shameful thing in Mali,” said Boubeye. She said the organization had identified more than 300 cases of sexual assault among women since April 2012.
Aid workers say that little to no support has been offered for the women who have been subjected to rape or sexual assault since the rebel takeover. “Many women do not dare to talk about being raped. They are afraid that their husbands will leave them and that they will be segregated from society,” a local journalist told the UN’s IRIN news service.
Earlier this year, IRIN cited a state prosecutor in Bamako as saying that only one case of sexual assault linked to the 2012 conflict was going to court.
The fear of reporting rape, combined with little to no coverage of the ongoing violence in the country, has left women in Mali with little to no voice. The fact that a rape victim reported her attack in September can perhaps give hope to those who stay silent.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Sexualized violence, Africa, Criminal justice