Now that Gao, a remote but critical outpost in northern Mali, has become a hub of military personnel — Mali Army, French troops and UN peacekeepers — to fend off terrorist incursions, it is also a simmering spot for sexual assaults and intimidation of women who live there. These acts are committed in the shadows of some Gao residences, in public areas and in brothels, say aid workers and journalists who have spent time in the city.
Few women who endure such treatment want to report the threats or violations to officials in Gao for fear of retribution and out of humiliation. One woman who was raped last fall who confided to an aid worker was reportedly burned by cigarettes on her genitals, needing medical help. Sex workers, many of them young women, are accommodating soldiers stationed in the city, but sometimes they are forced to endure violence as part of their services. A local hospital offers help for victims of sexual assaults, yet getting to the room requires walking through numerous sections of the building, risking high visibility.
At brothels, many prostitutes want men to use condoms, but if a client refuses the price of services goes up. Women in these circumstances do not have much negotiating power, however, leaving them powerless in asserting their rights regarding conditions. Yet they provide sex because of the few alternatives for work and the high demand.
An expert who works with sexual assault victims in Gao has been threatened for tending to the women, an observer who was in Gao told PassBlue, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter. The observer said that the Malian soldiers, reputed to be undisciplined, were apparently committing many of the attacks; the Mali Army is not part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country.
The current culture of impunity dates to September, when at least four UN peacekeepers were involved in sexually assaulting a Gao woman. The soldiers, the BBC reported, were identified as being among the 1,500 Chadian troops serving with the UN mission, Minusma (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), which was formally deployed in the country in July and now numbers about 5,500 military, police and civilian personnel (of which 14 are women).
Minusma took the reins from regional troops, led by Chad, who had been operating alongside the French military, or Opération Serval, in pushing jihadists out of Mali a year ago last winter.
The UN confirmed that the allegations of rape in September had been leveled against Chadian soldiers, and that Chad was notified of the accusation. A UN spokesman in New York said at the time that “the troop-contributing country has primary responsibility for investigating the matter and ensuring that appropriate disciplinary and judicial measures are taken should the allegations be well founded.”
Generally, the UN cannot and does not discipline peacekeeping soldiers. In responding to questions about follow-up by the UN, a spokesman said recently in an email that “the Department of Peacekeeping Operations officially notified the Government of Chad of these allegations in late September” and that the “Government of Chad officially responded, notifying that it would take responsibility for the investigations. The Government of Chad has further advised the Department of Peacekeeping Operations that it has completed the national investigation, and the United Nations awaits advice on the outcome of the investigations and follow up accountability measures as appropriate. MINUSMA provided medical assistance to the alleged victim.” But no financial compensation was offered to the Gao woman.
News about the rape vanished quickly from English-language media and UN references, though some French media continued to report on it.
In December, a woman who spoke English answered the phone at the Chad mission to the UN, near the UN headquarters, saying that only one person in the office could discuss the rape investigation, but that he was in Chad at the time and could be contacted by email. She said in a later conversation that contact with him was not likely, however, since Chad did not have Internet and that the spokesman did not speak English.
From the start of the UN mission in Mali, it was envisaged that the majority of the military, police and civilian components would operate mostly in the north with a logistics base in Gao, which has an international airport. Minusma’s main task is to provide protection for civilians, including the deployment of women protection advisers and addressing the needs of victims of sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict.
It is also meant “to monitor, help investigate and report” to the Security Council violations and abuses committed against children as well as violations committed against women, “including all forms of sexual violence in armed conflict.”
It was not known exactly how many Chadians were involved in the assault, but the victim identified four soldiers as taking part. Residents told the BBC that several women were actually raped by the Chadians in a room adjoining a bar in Gao’s city center, but just the one woman reported the incident. French news reports say the Chadian soldiers who may have participated in the rape had left their base in Tessalit, fed up with not being paid, and took their frustrations out in Gao. The soldiers apparently fled Mali after their attacks.
The news of the rape generated outrage in wider Africa that the accused was allegedly raped by peacekeepers and that the UN was leaving the investigation in the hands of the Chadian government, whose president is Idriss Déby. The country has won praise by the French and the UN for its major role in trying to eliminate jihadists from Mali, including pushing them out of Gao, a formerly peaceful, mud-brick city along the Niger River that is now the object of sporadic rocket assaults.
A report on Mali from the UN secretary-general’s office in January 2014 noted how incidents of sexual violence and rape “remain a source of concern in Mali, particularly in the north.” It said that from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2013, 276 cases of rape were reported, including 68 cases involving children, with most cases in Timbuktu and Gao. It added that the government “has taken measures to address those crimes by mandating the judicial authorities to prioritize cases of sexual violence, but efforts to investigate such crimes and identify perpetrators have been hampered by the slow return of the judicial authorities to the north.”
The report said that mechanisms for monitoring, analysis and reporting have been set up and post-rape treatment is being carried out, mostly in Gao and Timbuktu. “An assessment of the full scope of sexual violence is difficult, as fear of reprisal or rejection by families prevents survivors from reporting crimes and/or from accepting alternative settlements, such as reparations in the form of cash or other material goods.”
In the last year, Déby, a former general, has become a darling of Western powers involved in the region’s conflicts and the UN, since he provided core troops — about 2,000 — to Minusma. He is so powerful lately, that his country flew in the entire Parliament of Central African Republic to the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, in early January 2014, to pressure the resignation of the country’s president, Michel Djotodia, and its prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye. (Central African Republic is under siege by two warring groups, the Seleka and the antibalaka, as French and African Union troops have been installed to protect civilians there since mid-December.)
In Mali last year, the Chadians conducted the riskiest operations, working out of Tessalit, near the Algerian border, where jihadists are said to be bunkered. At least 40 Chadian soldiers were killed during the military action in 2013, including two by a suicide bomber in October.
Chad is regarded as having the most desert-savvy military in West Africa, a legacy won by its long battles against Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi, yet it is listed in the UN’s name and shame report on the use of child soldiers. The country joined the UN Security Council in January 2014 as an elected member for two years and is a state party to the International Criminal Court. The French keep an air force base in Chad.
Last fall, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the Sahel region, with a stop in Chad. There, he discussed with government officials the country’s efforts to tackle the serious security and development challenges in the region. During a meeting with Déby, Ban welcomed Chad’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations. He also noted the determination of Chad to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers in its armed forces.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.