“The rebels were just at the corner and watching me,” recalls one young Malian girl. “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.”
Since March 2012, the Gao region of Mali has been a battleground with armed groups terrorizing the population and often violently abusing women and children. This has led to the displacement of more than 412,000 people fleeing the conflict for safer ground.[i] Rape, sexual violence and forced marriages have tragically become commonplace.
With daily escalating violence, UN Women undertook a survey documenting the violence against women and girls, in order to urge actions to respond adequately to survivors. Although many of those who were violated were unwilling to come forward to tell their stories, due to the stigma attached to this form of violence, more than 50 survivors of rape were interviewed.
“These are just 51 women in a specific area who were able to come forward. Rape is something people don't talk about in this area,” said UN Women Country Director Rachelle Djangone Mian. “Imagine what the actual number of women and girls raped is.”
Rape victims in Gao, as in other occupied regions in Mali, are tortured by what they have gone through. 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.
“I am 35 years old and married … I was passing in front of a big compound and I saw those men in military uniforms. One of them … took my child away from me and when I wanted to shout to get my child back, one of them gave me a slap in the face. They tied my two arms behind my back and they started to undress me. I tried to resist but I was beaten up until I was unconscious and I was raped,” said another woman.
Responding to this horrific situation, UN Women developed a partnership with two local NGOs to put in a place a holistic approach to support rape victims through the establishment of a gender-based violence unit in the main hospital in the Gao region. In each unit, medical and psycho-social support is provided.
To date, out of the 10 planned treatment units, four are fully functional (in Gao, Mopti, Kati, Bamako) and more than 1,000 women and girls have benefited from psychosocial support. Fifty therapy groups have been established to provide space for women and girls to talk about their experiences.
Speaking up privately is often the first step to speaking out publicly as survivors and trying to mobilize for change.
UN Women is also part of the gender-based violence cluster of UN agencies, governmental bodies, NGOs and other organizations involved in the humanitarian response. The group successfully lobbied the Ministry of Justice to instruct all levels of the justice system to ensure that adequate measures must be taken in order to handle gender-based violence cases as soon as they are submitted.