How international court may give Mali's women a second chance at justice

Why We Wrote This

A new approach to prosecute sexual violence could send a broader message to survivors in Mali and beyond, their advocates say: Your experiences do matter, and the world's courts are paying attention.

Anna Pujol-Mazzini
Women who fled ethnic violence in central Mali gathered at the entrance to a makeshift camp in Dialakorobougou, Mali, in November 2018.

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In 2012, as Islamist militants swept into northern Mali’s cities, women saw their lives sharply limited. Everyday activities like shopping came with new rules: covering their hair, avoiding men besides their husbands, even sitting down while browsing goods. Many were raped, forced into marriage with the men they called “occupiers.”

Seven years on, however, not a single perpetrator has been prosecuted in Mali. That′s due to silence and shame, advocates say, as well as the region's ongoing instability. 

Now, a case at the International Criminal Court accuses a former Islamist police chief of overseeing forced marriages leading to sexual enslavement. The case represents more than another path for justice in Mali; it could also set a wider precedent. It is the ICC’s first case concerning “persecution on the grounds of gender” – and indeed, the court has never had a conviction for any case of sexual violence.

“It sends a message to both victims and perpetrators that the ICC is willing and able to prosecute if national courts are not,” says María Mingo Jaramillo, an officer for Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice. “It is important to start developing jurisprudence on this crime.”

As Mariam Traoré began her work counseling women, she learned she would have to listen closely.

“They managed to catch me,” some of them would say. Or, “men dragged me somewhere and I did two hours.” “They wanted to rape me, but I defended myself,” another one would explain.

Despite the understatements and denials, “automatically, we understand what happened. These are cases of rape,” Ms. Traoré says, sitting in the office of the Association for the Development of Women’s Rights (APDF) in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

She gathered the testimonies in a dusty, black notepad filled with passport-sized pictures of girls as young as 13. The book speaks to the extent of sexual violence that fell upon Mali’s women in 2012. Amid a conflict pitting the state against separatist rebels and jihadists in the north, the crisis largely went unnoticed.

At first, when thousands fled to Bamako in search of safety, women refused to speak about a crime they thought unspeakable: one that left many excluded, and blamed, by their own families. “You are marginalized, rejected by society, as if you were trash. That’s why women keep quiet,” says Moctar Mariko, who heads the Malian Association for Human Rights.

And in a country where not a single perpetrator of sexual violence in the conflict has been prosecuted, the risks for women who come forward are often too high for the elusive reward of justice. But a recent case against Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud of Timbuktu could bring justice to survivors where national courts have failed, advocates say. The former Islamic police chief is accused of overseeing forced marriages leading to the sexual enslavement of women, among other crimes.

The International Criminal Court case, if it moves forward after a May confirmation hearing, would be the first ever to focus on “persecution on the grounds of gender.”

So far, there has been no successful conviction for sexual violence crimes at the court, despite a push by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda since 2014. (The conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Congo, was overturned in June.)

“It sends a message to both victims and perpetrators that the ICC is willing and able to prosecute if national courts are not. That applies to both Mali and beyond,” says María Mingo Jaramillo, a legal and program officer for Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, an advocacy group based in the Hague. “It is important to start developing jurisprudence on this crime.”

The ICC’s move “may encourage national courts to prosecute [gender-based persecution], which is prevalent in many conflicts around the world today, and is often overlooked.” 

Life under occupation

The takeover of key northern cities by Tuareg rebels and armed Islamist groups marked the end of life as they knew it for its women. In Timbuktu, they had to cover their hair with veils, could not be seen in public with men other than their husbands, and had to sit down while browsing goods in the market because bending over to pick up an item was seen as provocative.

Those who did not obey “were arrested, beaten, and sent to the women’s prison. In that prison, women were systematically raped,” says Bintou Bouaré Founé Samaké, president of the WILDAF women’s group, who went to the city to gather evidence for potential prosecutions.

But the violence wasn’t limited to those who went against the Islamists’ rules. Awa Touré (whose name has been changed for privacy) started spending most of her days indoors once they settled in her central Timbuktu neighborhood. After a trip to the market to buy food for the family, she received two marriage proposals from those she calls the “occupiers.”

“On the third proposal, they left us no choice. I did not consent. My parents did not consent,” Ms. Touré says by phone from her hometown. After the marriage, she was moved to another district and locked inside the house.

For 13 days, she was forced to have sex with him. Then he divorced her. “Out of nowhere this man destroyed my life: I didn’t know how to look at people, how to talk to people anymore,” Touré says. When she learned he had remarried shortly after, she was distraught to think that another woman had experienced the same thing.

Touré’s story is similar to other stories from all over the north. In other cases, armed men teamed up to pay bride prices jointly, with one officially acting as the “husband” and the others visiting, and raping, the unwilling wife at night.

In 2012 and 2013, WILDAF registered 173 survivors across the country who needed help with trauma, injuries, and pregnancies. Advocates say the real number of victims, however, are likely in the thousands. “We have statistics, but they do not reflect reality,” according to Bernadette Sene, the chief advisor for women’s protection for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. 

Alternate road to justice?

When dozens of these women started demanding justice, human-rights groups in the country initiated lawsuits. The second complaint, focusing on war crimes and crimes against humanity including rape in Timbuktu, named Mr. Al Hassan as one of the perpetrators.

Al Hassan, who has been in custody in The Hague since March 2018, was a member of the Ansar Dine Islamist group that, alongside Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, imposed strict sharia law until Malian and French soldiers drove them out in early 2013. Despite a peace agreement in 2015, insecurity prevails, and there is no functioning justice system in the north.

At the height of the violence, the Supreme Court ruled that all conflict-related cases would be handled in the capital Bamako, which had been spared by the violence. The rights groups filed the sexual violence cases, a judge heard more than 30 victims, and evidence was gathered. Then in 2015, that ruling was reversed.

“We can’t file complaints anymore because there are no judges in the north to take up our cases; there is nothing in place to protect the victims,” says Mr. Mariko, from the Malian Association for Human Rights. Effectively, while authority to prosecute lies with northern courts, the sexual violence cases are gathering dust in Bamako offices.

In July 2012, however, Mali’s minister of justice requested an ICC investigation into war crimes committed in the north, stating that the country’s courts were unable to try the perpetrators. Among the crimes listed were “the rapes of women and young girls.”

Al Hassan’s case, and international justice, could provide an alternative to a gridlocked national justice system. But it covers a small fraction of the crimes committed against women since 2012. For those outside Timbuktu, justice remains distant.

And sexual violence did not stop when the occupiers left the city. Several women’s organizations even say that violence is on the rise, from frequent rapes on buses going to Gao, to the increasing number of attacks on women fetching water and wood in the central region – where ethnic tensions and jihadist violence have led to the killing of more than a thousand people in the past two years.

“The conflict shattered all the safeguards against violence against women,” Ms. Bouaré says. And in the meantime, “victims live with their aggressors on the ground.”

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