Mali’s displaced women organise for long stay away from home

Women wash dishes in the Niger river in Ségou, January 2013
Women wash dishes in the Niger river in Ségou, January 2013

As the donor conference for Mali takes place in Brussels, displaced Malian women aim to tackle more immediate concerns

Two things, at least, matter more to Ramata Touré than the outcome of the donor conference in Brussels on Wednesday at which representatives of more than 100 countries will be asked for €2bn ($2.6bn) to help bring peace and development to Mali.


“I need sleeping mats for my grandchildren,” said Touré, 58, who arrived in this town on the banks of the Niger river after fleeing Gao, 700km to the north, in March last year. “And I need the rains of June to come because when they do the farmers will go back to work and Gao’s markets and banks will reopen,” she told a meeting of about 50 displaced women in a courtyard in Ségou.


They are among more than 500,000 people in central and northern Mali who in the past 16 months have become dependent on aid – chiefly water pumped by the Red Cross – as a result of destruction caused by the advance of armed groups demanding secession for the north and the imposition of sharia law. Of those, about 300,000 are displaced within the country. An estimated further 175,000 are living in refugee camps in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger or Burkina Faso, according to the UN.


In January, France sent 4,500 troops to defeat fighters linked to al-Qaida. But the former colonial power wants most of its troops out by July. The international community is backing the deployment of an 11,200-strong UN stabilisation force and pressing for elections in July. The donors’ conference, at which Mali’s interim government will put forward a 12-point development plan covering everything from judicial reform to private-sector incentives, is part of the same urgent timetable that many Malians find unrealistic.


“I would love to go home,” says Touré, who used to sell second-hand clothes from Europe in Gao’s market. “Here in Ségou I have all the children in the family with me – 15 of them I think it is – and no ability to work because I don’t have a client base or suppliers. But I am going to have to stay for now because the rebels are still in Gao. They are just hiding until the French leave.”


The donors’ conference will emphasise the urgent need to reopen schools and state hospitals in the north and create real economic opportunities in cities such as Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. However, city administrators, teachers and doctors have not returned to these towns in large numbers. Neither have the majority of international aid agencies, which – because of the fear of abductions – do not generally permit European staff to stay overnight in the north.


Kidal remains occupied by the MNLA (Azawad liberation movement), and the effectiveness of the new UN force, Minusma, is untested. People don’t have much faith in Mali’s own army, which has been accused of human rights crimes and whose weakness prompted the French intervention.


Touré says other displaced women living in Ségou are as filled with trepidation as she is at the thought of going home. Fatimata Maiga, 32, came from Timbuktu last year with her three children, all under 14. “Our parents and our husbands have stayed behind. Here in Ségou there is no refugee camp. We have to rent or sleep in relatives’ courtyards. But we have no way of making money. We are dependent on anything our husbands can send us and on charity.”


Care International, with funding from the UN children’s agency, Unicef, hands out basic household kits to displaced people. They include sleeping mats, buckets, bowls, cooking pots, water purification tablets and a few utensils. Touré’s women’s group – Annya, which means joined by the heart – is one of many started by displaced Malian women since the beginning of the war.


“When we started, the idea was simply to make friends and run a tontine [savings bank]. But after a time the city authorities asked us to represent the displaced women and children in Ségou. In the absence of displaced persons’ camps, and given that registering as a displaced person is voluntary, we have become an important link in the humanitarian chain,” says Touré.


Meetings are held a couple of times a week, at which the women exchange news from the north, their political views and even recipes. Touré says the governor of the Ségou region had begun handing out grants to people who wanted to go home. “We in Annya are staying right here for now and not taking any chances. If there are good rains, some of us may be tempted to go home, at least for a while, to plant the fields. But the earliest it will be safe in Mali will be after the elections.”



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