Mali: On the Road to Recovery?

By Michelle Brown

In the two months since Mali elected a new president, cautious optimism has prevailed throughout the country. The French military intervention succeeded in driving out Al Qaeda-linked insurgents from the north and has paved the way for the central government to reestablish its authority throughout the country. The UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has begun the process of deploying peacekeepers, although the mission won’t be fully operational until the end of the year. Around 30 UN human rights officers are now in place to monitor abuses, and in a vote of confidence, 137,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have now returned to the north.

But there are indications that the road to peace in Mali will be long and winding. According to UN figures, 517,000 Malians are still displaced, either internally or in neighboring countries. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group, recently announced that it was suspending its participation in peace talks, and there are reports of ongoing fighting in the MNLA’s former stronghold, Kidal. A suicide bombing in Timbuktu last week also raised questions about the strength of Islamist militants.

It has been nearly a year since RI last traveled to Mali, and our upcoming trip provides an opportunity to follow up on our previous assessment and advocacy. The mission will focus on three key themes: the humanitarian response to IDPs, the potential for returns and durable solutions, and the effectiveness of current protection strategies with particular attention to women and girls.

Since RI’s last mission, by all accounts, the humanitarian response in Mali has improved. NGOs and UN agencies have deployed experienced humanitarian staff to the country and increased their capacity. But despite improvements in the overall security situation, massive humanitarian needs persist. Returnees are going back to areas where people are already extremely vulnerable – and in some cases, they are more vulnerable than the returnees. Indeed, in some parts in the north, up to 90 percent of the population is in need of food assistance.

There is also a chance that IDP and refugee returns will lead to increased community-level violence, due to deep political and ethnic divisions between those who left and those who stayed. There have been reports of numerous isolated instances of community-level violence, but it is unclear if that violence is ethnic in nature or a result of banditry.

The protection of women and girls is also a major concern. During the conflict, there were allegations of rape by MNLA insurgents. The UN Secretary General’s most recent report on conflict-related sexual violence documented 211 cases during 2012, but the true number is certainly far greater. In addition, women and girls have been made even more vulnerable by a lack of medical care, the evisceration of local police and courts, and inadequate humanitarian assistance aimed at preventing and responding to sexual violence.

Early and forced marriage was already a challenge in Mali prior to the conflict, and that remains the case today. Families use early and forced marriage as a survival strategy during periods of economic and food insecurity – both of which increased during the insurgency. Cases of forced marriage were reported in 2012 in all areas under rebel occupation, including instances of young women being forced into unions with members of armed groups. In fact, these marriages were simply a cover to legitimize the underlying reality of abduction and rape, which in some cases could amount to sexual slavery. Unfortunately, there are few mechanisms in place to protect women and girls from this kind of violence or to help them recover from it.

In the coming weeks, we will be meeting with IDPs and returnees – particularly women and girls – to learn more about their needs as they begin to rebuild their lives. We will also be meeting with the UN, international and national NGOs, and government officials involved in the humanitarian response.