Living with the weight of taboo
In Timbuktu, 98 survivors of sexual violence like Fanta* received medical, psychological and economic support in 2021 thanks to UNICEF and its partners.
"I want to be free and succeed by myself, to be independent," Fanta* says proudly, her 18-month-old baby asleep on her lap in a house in Timbuktu. A few months ago, the 16-year-old did not dare to go out in the neighbourhood.
"She feels better, she is very brave", confirms Lalia Lahabib, a psychologist with the NGO GARDEL who has been following Fanta since she first received help. Two years ago, a group of men sexually assaulted the teenager on her way home.
"I was ashamed, I cried and hid," says Fanta. " I didn't know I was pregnant and I didn't tell anyone when it happened.” As the girl became increasingly ill, her older sister took her to see a doctor who found that she was five months pregnant.
"People are too afraid of the stigma. Rape is seen as a stain on the whole family, not just on the girl."
"The girls who come here have emotional problems, they are psychologically affected by what happened to them," says Elhadj Ossed, technical director of Belafarandi community health centre. "Many of them first reject their pregnancy, fearing the judgment of their family and the community. So our midwives, who are trained to receive victims, listen to them, inform them and support them,” he says.
"People here prefer to keep quiet," explains Mohamed Moussa, legal assistant at GARDEL. "They don't report the assaults unless there is a pregnancy. People are too afraid of the stigma. Rape is seen as a stain on the whole family, not just on the girl."
For fear of stigma and reprisals, no complaints have been filed so far by Fanta. "When she told me, I was so hurt and ashamed, I was upset," says Assitan*, Fanta's mother. "My daughter was so young, I was shocked. I didn't dare leave our house and I was ashamed that I tried to hide what had happened. But when I heard about the support for girls at a tontine (an economic self-help group, often for and by women) I realized that she could get help", she recalls. A widow, Assitan sells doughnuts in front of her house every morning. "At the moment we are 11 people at home including eight children. We manage."
As part of the support programme, Fanta is now an independent business owner able to help support the family. She has set up a small shop using the 60,000 CFA francs (about US$100) in aid she received. "Today, thanks to this aid, I buy condiments at the big market and then sell them here at home," explains the young girl who never went to school but learned to count from her mother. "I earn about 2,000 CFA francs a week in profit and I keep this money for myself and my son. With these savings, I have already bought a goat that has given birth to two babies."
"Fanta has a good sense of business", Lalia Lahabib proudly confirms with a big smile. The trust between the psychologist and the young girl is obvious. "When providing psychological support I first make the person feel comfortable and I establish friendly relations, which is important. First of all, I observe the person, then I listen to them. I hold weekly or daily meetings, depending on their needs and availability. In the case of Fanta, I make her laugh, I tell her stories, I also talk about other girls I know who have had the same thing happen to them. We also go on little outings together because before she felt too ashamed to leave her house.”
Today, Fanta hopes to expand her business to offer a better future for her son Aliou*.
"He is doing well, he walks, he plays. I want the best for Aliou, that he gets an education” she says. Her son's name was influenced by the NGO's psychologist. "Lalia supported me so much throughout the pregnancy and she was always telling me 'you are carrying our little Aliou' as a joke” recalls Fanta. “Lalia was always very kind, she helped me and we laughed a lot so, at his birth, I called my son Aliou."
This support programme for survivors of sexual violence has received funding from Canada, Switzerland and Denmark.
*Names changed for protection reasons