"I Never Feel Safe Anymore."

By Marcy Hersh
Women walk through a neighborhood inhabited by internally displaced Malians.

Amina hasn't had a full night of sleep in more than a year. Ever since she fled her home in northern Mali last fall, she has been haunted by terrifying memories of violence. When my colleagues from Refugees International and I visited her in the Malian capital, Bamako, she volunteered to share her story with me.

In early 2012, Islamist insurgents occupied northern Mali, and with this occupation came a strict imposition of Sharia law. In Gao, where Amina lived, women were forced to wear a full, face-covering veil. Listening to the radio and watching television were both prohibited.

Amina told us that there were harsh punishments for those who were seen to be violating Sharia. She pointed across the room to her cousin, a teenaged girl, who had a long scar across her cheek. "She was attacked for walking in the street with her uncle,” Amina said. “The rebels thought it was her boyfriend and beat her for being unmarried and walking in public with a man."

The Islamist insurgent occupation of northern Mali led to widespread human rights abuses against civilians. They included sexual assaults, looting, child soldier recruitment, amputations, and summary executions – all of them justified (at least from the insurgents’ point of view) as applications of Sharia. Life for most residents became nearly impossible.

One afternoon, Amina was working in her garden when four men unknown to her, who she believes were rebel fighters, entered the garden and attacked her. She called for help and tried to fight back, but each one raped her. Amina was deeply distressed, and when her husband returned home that evening, she told him what had happened. Furious and ashamed, Amina's husband rejected her and forced her to leave their home.

Amina had no choice but to gather her six children and flee. She traveled on foot from Gao to the city of Timbuktu, and then hired a car to drive south to Bamako. When she first arrived, she moved into the home of her cousin, but after a few months her cousin could no longer afford to support Amina and the children. Today, she rents space in a crowded corrugated-tin shack in the city’s Commun I district, which she shares with 15 other displaced families.

Amina sometimes finds work doing laundry, but it is not regular. Most days, without anything better to do, Amina lies around her house, remembering her life in Gao and the horrible incident that changed it forever. Every night she is plagued by terrifying nightmares of her attackers. "I never feel safe anymore," Amina admits. "I have the feeling that the rebels could find me anytime."

There are a number of humanitarian organizations in Bamako that provide support to displaced families, but they mostly offer cash transfers and food distributions. While these are vital services that Amina needs, she also needs support and counseling to address the trauma that she faced.

Protection services, and especially services for survivors of gender-based violence (including medical care, psychosocial support, and legal counsel) are very hard to find in Bamako. The large NGOs and UN agencies that have this expertise are focusing their efforts on the north of Mali, which, while important, overlooks the needs of the displaced and traumatized women and girls living in the capital. There are a few small women's organizations that are working to support women like Amina, but they have very limited budgets and cannot reach most of the people in need.

Amina has been fortunate to connect with a local organization that referred her to counseling services. Hopefully, this will help Amina to recover and find relief from her horrible memories. But since she has been rejected by her husband, she will never be able to go home again – even after security is fully restored in Gao.

It's impossible to know how many displaced women have had experiences comparable to Amina’s. A UN report counted more than 200 women who had experienced conflict-related sexual violence in the north. But because of the taboo surrounding sexual violence, the true number is surely far higher.

Many women who faced the most humiliating and traumatizing human rights abuses are now displaced and living in southern Mali. They have no plans to return until security is fully established. And with cities like Gao and Timbuktu experiencing renewed violence over the last few weeks, it's clear that they will be in the south for many months to come. Humanitarians must ensure that medical and psychosocial services are available to women throughout southern Mali, so they can recover and restore their dignity.

There must also be support strategies put in place for women like Amina who can never return due to the stigma of sexual violence. Humanitarians must encourage the Malian government to develop a local integration policy that helps displaced female-headed households access land and basic services like education, healthcare, and socio-economic opportunities. Only then will Amina truly be able to leave trauma behind and find a fresh start.