By Manzo Dembele, Campaigns Coordinator, World Vision in Mali
I recently sat down with an internally displaced family. My heart broke as I listened to their stories. “We have been here for the past two years, trying to adapt to our new life. But I must confess that so far, it has not been easy,” says Miriam*, an elderly displaced mother in her new home in Bamako, the Malian capital.
Miriam moved with her family into this modest house, which she shares with many other relatives, as she was no longer able to pay the rent of her previous house.
Despite not having a stable job, Miriam has to look after her family. Two of her boys, aged 14 and 16, were associated with armed groups for months. They were able to receive some psychosocial support upon their release, but have neither been able to find a suitable occupation nor returned to school.
You must agree with me that this would worry any parent: not only the fact that your teenage kids are unemployed and that they also may not return to school, but the social stigma of having been recruited by armed groups in an unstable country like Mali.
Sadly, Miriam’s boys’ experience is devastating and a reality for too many children in Mali, even though the involvement of children in armed conflict is against international law. United Nations figures indicate that from 2017 to March 2020, there were 516 cases of child recruitment and use by the parties in the Malian conflict. This issue affected mostly children living in the central and northern regions of the country. Children as young as nine have been used as soldiers, experiencing the same horrors of conflict as Miriam’s two boys. Unfortunately, these figures continue to rise.
These are not just statistics. They are our children, and an inestimable part of the future generation that is lost. Though some efforts are made, we need urgent progress. Each of us can help and every action counts.
All children involved in armed conflict experience trauma and psychosocial distress regardless of their gender. Girls in conflict situations experience sexual violence, forced marriage, other forms of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), separation from family and relatives with little chance of being reunited, a loss of access to education, and difficult access to medical care.
After exiting an armed group, this group of children often faces significant social stigma. They find themselves in a continuous struggle for survival, finding it difficult to adapt to a new life and environment, as Miriam’s boys have found.
“I am extremely concerned by the sharp increase in the number of verified grave violations committed against children in Mali, in particular, the recruitment and use of children, the killing and maiming of children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access. I urge all parties in the Malian conflict to immediately halt grave violations, release all children in their ranks and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law,” said António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations during the release of the third report on children and armed conflict in Mali on November 11th 2020.
Like the Secretary-General, I am deeply concerned. Because regardless of my social or professional position, these children represent our future generation.
Luckily, I can proudly say that I work for an organisation—World Vision—that supports these children and their families, by advocating for the end of their recruitment, pushing for their release, and supporting them and their families after their release.
However, even with enough goodwill, an organisation and its partners cannot do all this alone. Therefore, I call on decision-makers to provide adequate support for all children, particularly the ones that were formerly associated with armed groups to be reintegrated back into society.
This can be done by taking actions to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in conflict, and continuing to provide support to the internally displaced families to which many of these child soldiers belong.
In addition, issues related to children's well-being should continue to be on donors' priority agenda, to ensure that the provision of critical humanitarian assistance meets the rising needs of children in the country.
*For the protection of her identity and that of her boys, the name Miriam was given to the mother of the two boys mentioned in the blog.