Gao's CTO is a ray of hope for the socio-economic reintegration of young people

Through Transit and Orientation Centres (CTOs), UNICEF is supporting the Government of Mali's efforts to provide relief to children affected by conflict and to combat grave child rights violations.

Ismail Ishaq Maiga
UA young person learning in the Transit and Orientation Centre in Gao.
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita
24 October 2021

It's 4 p.m. and on the outskirts of Gao the small courtyard of the Transit and Orientation Centre (CTO) is bustling with a group of children aged between 9 and 17. The head of the centre, Aym*, with his lanky, haughty appearance, has just finished an exchange with "his children". The talk was about resilience in conflict zones. Now he invites the residents of the centre to enjoy their playtime.

Between the cranks of the table football, the swing, the making of tea, the preparations of the football pitch and bringing out the board games, everyone is busy in this courtyard. Some of the children, with a plastic kettle of water in their hands, are doing their ablutions to fulfil their religious obligations.

The ochre building with raised walls, surrounded by barbed wire, houses the Gao CTO that welcomes children who have left armed groups and those who have been separated from their families as a result of conflict. The centre operates thanks to the technical assistance from UNICEF and with financial support from European Union programme Access to justice for children on the move and other vulnerable children in West Africa.

Their names are Hammadi, Binani, Alhad or Sibiry*. Each one has a different story, but they all have one thing in common: the precariousness that makes them vulnerable and a history of participation in activities with armed groups that constitutes a violation of their rights. 

"I was with an armed group in the Ansongo area. Thanks to the NGO ATDED, I got out of this group to come to the transit and orientation centre in Gao. Today, I am learning a new life. I thank UNICEF and its partners for this opportunity, says Alhad*, aged 16.

"Life in the makeshift camps consists of shopping for the fighters, making tea, fetching water and firewood for the kitchen, and keeping watch to warn of impending danger, among other things. For us young people of 15 to 17 years old, we actively participate in operations as combatants. The handling of weapons and the art of ambushes hold no secrets for us," continues young Alhad, who is looking for a repentant in the faith. As proof, he does not miss a moment of the five daily prayers.

A holistic response is provided to children in terms of psychosocial, medical, food and clothing support, as well as family tracing and reunification and above all socio-economic reintegration.

Aym*, head of the centre
Alhad, 16 ans, partage l'histoire de son passage au sein d'un groupe armé.
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita
Des enfants du centre de transit et d’orientation à Gao (CTO) dans la cour en train de jouer au baby-foot. Ces enfants ont été retirés des forces et groupes armés pour leur réinsertion sociale, région de Gao, Septembre 2021.
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita

According to the UN's 2021 Humanitarian Needs Assessment for Mali, 3,055,418 people are in need of protection, including 1,600,000 children, 51 per cent of whom are girls and 49 per cent boys.

"The real motivations of young people for this new way of life stem from their experiences," explains the centre's director, Aym.

"Most of these children come from families affiliated with armed groups. This situation is the result of the new recruits' feelings following the death of one of their own. Also, the daily proximity through the delivery of food to the fighters, gives rise to a vocation to wear military uniforms. Failing to contribute financially or materially to the war effort, parents do not hesitate to give their offspring to participate directly in the fighting," concludes Aym.

 "The admission of 388 children, 169 of whom came out of armed groups and 219 unaccompanied children, has shown the level of vulnerability of these children. This is why a holistic response is provided to them in terms of psychosocial, medical, food and clothing care, as well as family tracing and reunification and, above all, socio-economic reintegration," he notes.

Arsene Bagré, Spécialiste de la Protection de l’Enfant UNICEF, au CTO de Gao
UNICEF Mali/2021/Keita

These centres are open and provide temporary accommodation for children for a period of one to three months. Arsène Bagré, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Mali, underlines the importance of UNICEF's technical and financial support for the functioning of these centres.

"The training of the centre's staff covers the reporting and monitoring mechanism, individual listening and group therapy, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, etc.  UNICEF, through its partnership with the National Directorate for the Promotion of the Child and the Family, ensures the follow-up of children reunited with their families for a period of six months to one year. This follow-up helps consolidate their socio-economic reintegration and prevents them from falling back into a vulnerability that would expose them to recruitment into armed groups," says Arsène Bagré.

"With the closure of 1,535 schools in April 2021, nearly 460,000 children are deprived of a protective environment and exposed to an increased risk of violence, exploitation and abuse, including recruitment by armed groups and work on artisanal gold panning sites, which are an increasingly alarming protection issue in central and northern Mali. Faced with these challenges, it is urgent to develop actions to strengthen prevention mechanisms against violations of children's rights," said Patricia Hoorelbeke, EU ECHO's Director in Mali.

With a total cost of more than 650,000,000 CFA francs, the project covers the regions of Segou, Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu. In Mali, UNICEF supports 5 CTOs in Bamako, Mopti, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Of these CTOs, two are government-led, notably in Timbuktu and Gao. The other three are run by national NGOs.

The project "Quality Protection and Psychosocial Support Services and Emergency Education for Children and Adolescents Affected by the Conflict" aims to support the Government of Mali's efforts to alleviate the plight of affected children and to combat serious violations of children's rights in the regions of Segou, Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu. Indeed, the socio-security context remains very volatile in Mali. The same applies to the limited access of young people and adolescents to socio-economic reintegration activities. All of which pushes them to join obscure groups. An adequate response, anchored in the community dynamic, remains the prerequisite for their empowerment.

*The first names of the workers and children in the CTO have been changed to protect their identity.