Girls and young women have become increasingly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mali and are at increased risk of child labour, child marriage and abuse.
It is 10:30am when we arrive at the small village in Mali’s Kayes region located around 50km from the town of Kita. The atmosphere is calm. Women sit together chatting in a cooking area while the men sit under a covered area with the village chief. The boys are busy tending to the cows while they wait for their fathers to start ploughing the fields. The girls are invisible, they are no longer in the village.
We are here for a community meeting; a follow-up visit to monitor the progress made as part of our COVID-19 outreach work. Plan International is working in partnership with the national NGO Development Research and Support Team (ERAD) to fight COVID-19 at the local level. Community engagement and accountability is an essential part of our coronavirus response plan.
After the customary greetings, the meeting gets under way. The chief and his advisors are encouraging about the work being done in the village. “The awareness messages are being delivered door-to-door. At first it was not easy, the facilitators had a lot of trouble convincing people that the virus was real.”
“Now we believe in it and we take precautions. We have received hand washing kits, soap and gels. Nobody goes through this courtyard anymore without first washing their hands. A water, sanitation and hygiene committee has been set up in the village to ensure that the kits are used properly and to provide help and advice.”
After learning about the ongoing work in the village to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, we ask about the whereabouts of the girls. The wife of the village chief explains. “With the closure of the schools, the situation has changed for young people. Most of the boys are at the gold panning site, some of them have migrated despite everything. The girls are in the capital, they work there as domestic helpers. Many of them have also been married.”
The issue of child marriage is an ongoing challenge in Mali which has the sixth highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world. 52% of girls in Mali are married before the age of 18 and 17% are married before their 15th birthday. Many families believe that girls should be married at the age of 16, regardless of their hopes and dreams.
Girls like 16 year old Soucko* have little choice when it comes to getting married. “I have just been given in marriage to a man I don’t know. I am only in my 11th year at school, how can I do it? I want to go to medical school. I don’t even know if I would be allowed to continue my studies. Men decide and we execute! It’s sad not to be in control of one’s own life.”
In May 2020, Plan International conducted a COVID-19 assessment across our working areas which revealed that the rates of child marriage have increased since the start of the outbreak. Field workers and health professional have also seen a rise in the number of instances of gender-based violence.
“The number of gender-based violence cases has increased here; I treat an average of 4 gender-based violence survivors per week,” says Dr. Diarra, who is head doctor at a community health centre in Kayes region. “Most of them have experienced physical and sexual violence. The police are notified each time.”
Dr. Diarra tells us that his patients need psychological support and his staff are not trained in that field. “My staff need to be trained in the psychological and psychosocial care of gender-based violence survivors and also to advocate for the end of this behaviour in our community.”
In many of the communities we have visited during the pandemic, the situation of girls is worrying. Raising awareness of the consequences of early marriage and gender-based violence is a key area of our advocacy work, along with the promotion of girls’ education to ensure that as many girls as possible go back to school when they reopen in September for the start of the new school year.
Through our interventions, more than 90 villages in Mali have signed an agreement banning the practice of gender-based violence. We hope this is the first step in a long road to ensure that all Mali’s girls and women can live their lives free of abuse and violence.
*Name changed to protect identity