There are three disasters simultaneously unfolding in Mali.
First, the Sahel region in Africa has been battling a severe food crisis. This food crisis preceded the conflict and has been considered the worst in recent history. In Mali alone, 1.2 million people have been rendered food insecure and malnourished.
Second, the armed-conflict in Mali and the associated human rights violations have resulted in the displacement of nearly a quarter of a million people. In the media, armed insurgents, the French, and the Malian-led military missions have dominated the news, while the stories of ordinary people who have been affected by the conflict remain untold.
Since the crisis began in March of 2012, 144,439 refugees have arrived in the neighboring countries of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania. Displaced, uprooted, and traumatized by their experience, women and children have been the most affected. The military intervention and subsequent fighting has only amplified the crisis. Moreover, limited security and access has severely hampered humanitarian relief operations.
Third, the fighting and displacement has brought agricultural activities to a halt. Since farmers have not been able to sow their crops, future food supplies could be affected and this may result in another humanitarian crisis.
Addressing the Immediate and Long-term Needs of Those Affected
In order to rebuild Mali, it is equally important to increase humanitarian relief efforts and to make investments that will strike at the roots of poverty.
Life-saving humanitarian assistance such as food, water, and medical help must be delivered with a sense of urgency. Since many host families in Ségou have accepted refugees from the north, there are no camps in Mali. However, the stress levels remain high as host families are now in need of food, water, and the basic facilities needed to accommodate the displaced. Children who have been separated from their friends, families, and communities are encountering difficulties in adjusting to their new environments and families that have been traumatized by what they have witnessed need emotional care and support. Addressing the physical and emotional needs of victims must go hand-in-hand and child protection should always at its center.
In Ségou, Plan has been running ‘catch-up’ classes to enable children to make-up missed lessons. These classes are held in Child-Friendly Spaces that also offer psychological counseling. Having counselors at hand helps children cope with their circumstances.
Education has been one of the first casualties of the conflict in Mali. Before the conflict began, a factsheet prepared by the UN’s educational cluster stated that…“amongst the 300,000 students in the north only 20 percent had been displaced to the south or were refugees in the neighboring countries. However, 80 percent of those who remained in the north had no access to education leaving them at risk of recruitment into armed groups.”
Education plays a vital role in restoring a sense of normalcy in a child’s life. It is also an essential part of rebuilding a nation. Ensuring that children continue their studies is dependent upon more than the provision of classrooms and textbooks. A survey conducted last year by the UN found that in the 50 percent of surveyed villages in the north, there has been a trend of students leaving school due to food insecurity. Because of this growing trend, schools should also serve as a place that offers students food security. School-based nutrition programs will be necessary to outline how this will be achieved.
What Needs to Be Done?
In 2011, the United Nations Development Program’s human development index ranked Mali below Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
The sighted causes were multiple disasters and some of the lowest development indicators. The recent armed conflict has compounded the sufferings of the Malian people and as a result, Mali will need all of the the attention and support that it can receive.
Rebuilding Mali is not going to be an easy task. It is going to be a long process that will involve not just the short-term provision of life-saving relief assistance, but also long-term planning.
The improvement of both security and access should be a top priority. Life-saving, rebuilding, and reconciliation initiatives must go hand-in-hand. Rebuilding should address the immediate impact of the conflict as well as its dynamics and underlying causes–that is the only way to break the cycle of violence.
There is still so much to be done, but having programs in place that help children recover is a good place to start.