A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
As soon as the plane lands in Gao, I see the first signs of fighting in Mali. Little is left of what was once an international airport. The waiting rooms are marked with bullet holes. Windows have been blown out of their frames. The road between Bamako and Gao is still not secure enough to travel, and we have to use a UN flight.
Gao is hot, dusty and poor, very poor. Desolate even! The fighting in Mali has destroyed the little infrastructure the town had. Hospitals can still barely cope with the people’s needs. Many schools are still closed. And although security in Gao is much better than in the villages across the north, missile attacks happen regularly and explosives can be found on the roadsides.
Women allowed to leave the house again
I talked about security with a women’s association Oxfam is supporting with programs on improving food security and women’s rights, together with our partner Union pour un avenir écologique et solidaire (UAVES). In northern Mali about 1.5 million people are in urgent need of assistance. Mali’s food crisis, the result of drought and lack of suitable land, has been aggravated by the fighting. Many people fled the jihadists last year, and as a result farmland remains uncultivated.
Besides, it’s mainly women who till the land, and it’s women that the extremist jihadists ordered to stay at home and prevented from working the land. The vegetable gardens we’re visiting today, belong to women whom UAVES is teaching how to work the land. 36 women each have their own plot on a hectare of land to grow vegetables on. They tell me that they use a little over half the harvest for their own consumption and sell the rest on the market.
Zali Mahana is a mother of five. She talks about the crisis: ‘When the jihadists occupied Gao, we weren’t allowed on the streets. That lasted for about 10 months. Now we can work again and grow vegetables on our own plot of land. The money we make on the market, we use to buy flour and oil, for instance.’
Vrouwen in Goa maken zich grote zorgen.Veel scholen dicht. Vanwege droogte en gevechten grote voedsel tekorten. pic.twitter.com/WXoNFcA6Da
— Farah Karimi (@Farah_Karimi) abril 9, 2014
Unfortunately Zali and the other women I talked with face another problem. Girls and young women are often the victim of sexual abuse from the soldiers there, including from UN troops. Women’s organizations warn them about this on the local radio. Both before and after the crisis there were daily reports of rape in northern Mali. Every time I hear these stories I get angry. It doesn’t matter for what cause men fight, each and every time it’s the women who are raped and humiliated during conflicts and wars. I’m glad that my colleagues in Gao are paying a lot of attention to this issue. Yet I’ve heard so many similar stories over time that I wonder if it’ll ever stop and what else we can do to end all forms of violence against women worldwide.
In every conversation with local organizations, mayors and other local government representatives, security is a recurring theme. Gao’s governor, who gives me a friendly welcome, says: ‘Your visit to a town that still isn’t secure, shows that Mali really matters to you. During the crisis there was total anarchy in the region. We are now trying to deliver basic services to the citizens. We’ve already done a lot to improve security. Many people who had fled the town have now returned. But in the villages too security must improve. And on the roads.’
For an ordinary town, with few resources, the situation in Gao is fragile, and when resources are lacking and donor countries are not providing sufficient support, the prospects are not very bright, especially for young people.