Protecting children in Gao

The Malian Government's Transit and Orientation Centre (CTO) in Gao provides holistic care for children affected by conflict, with the support of UNICEF and partners..

Julie Crenn
A child wearing a blue shirt  is playing a game of ludo.
UNICEF MALI/2021/Crenn
18 May 2021

Youssouf's* life changed in March 2020 when he was shot in the leg.

"I was at the watering hole with the cows and while the animals were drinking I fell suddenly. I didn't feel anything. Afterwards I woke up in Gao and I thought I would go back to the village quickly. However, Youssouf's recovery was extended by six months in August 2020 because his leg injury reopened following a bad fall.

The 14-year-old has been in the care of the Transit and Orientation Centre (CTO) for a year now.

"All I want is to go home, to see my mother, my brothers, my sister and my father again," he says, looking morose.

But it will be a little while longer before Youssouf has recovered enough to make the journey home. His condition requires appropriate medical and psychosocial care, which keeps him away from his family for longer than expected explains CTO manager Ismail*.

"He comes from a remote area where even access to water is complicated. His fractures require follow-up by a trauma specialist.  A community health centre would not be able to provide the care that he needs. We want him to recover 100 per cent before he goes home,"

Ismail*, CTO manager.
A boy in a blue shirt sits with a nurse who is looking at his leg.
UNICEF MALI/2021/Crenn
Youssouf being seen by a nurse at the CTO de Gao.
A boy walking on a dirt road in Gao.
UNICEF MALI/2021/Crenn
Youssouf walking in Gao.

At the CTO in Gao, a nurse, a psychologist, three facilitators and two cooks take turns caring for the children day and night, seven days a week. Child migrants, children from armed groups, unaccompanied children, children in conflict with the law - the CTO welcomes children with different backgrounds but similar needs.

"Everything we do is based on the principle of child protection," insists Ismail*. "Whatever the reasons for their arrival, our objective is that they find here the necessary framework to overcome their psychosocial problems."

To help the children, psychologist Ibrahim* uses several techniques.

"There is an observation phase and then I do individual listening sessions. Sometimes it is easier for the child to share his or her story during group therapy, where everyone speaks, while for others it is through drawing or games. These sessions that have increased during the COVID-19 period. Because of the pandemic, sports and socio-cultural activities have been restricted and we have increased the number of group and individual listening sessions," explains Ismail*.

The centre is equipped with masks, hydro-alcoholic gel, hand-washing devices and soap.

"We have been supported during this particular period and we have not had any cases of COVID here at the CTO," he adds.

In addition to the health consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted children's social and family supports and increased household socio-economic vulnerabilities. In this context, children and adolescents are even more at risk of violence, exploitation and family separation. The Gao CTO also provides the necessary support and protection for these children.

Children sit with a care taker in a circle in the centre.
UNICEF MALI/2021/Crenn
The children with a care taker at the CTO.

By April 2021, the centre was home to 22 children, including 10 girls, much to Youssouf's* delight.

"I've made a lot of friends here, some of whom have left, but I like to sit with the others and I've even learned Songhai," he says.

Although they come from different backgrounds and speak different languages, the children manage to communicate and bond.

"Here among their peers they feel safe," says Ibrahim*. At the end of April, the good news came: Youssouf will be reunited with his family. "We got the green light from the doctor and he will soon be going home," says Ismail*.

Since its creation in 2017, the Gao centre has taken in more than 320 vulnerable children, always on a transitional basis, as the objective is for the child to find a stable family environment. Identification, family reunification and reunification work is carried out for each child, always with their well-being as the main objective. In Youssouf's* case, the link with his family is maintained by telephone and his father has been able to visit him twice. 

Thanks to funding from Switzerland, Canada, UN CERF and FCDO, the CTO offers holistic care including individualised psychological follow-up, medical follow-up and participation in educational talks on different themes, such as the culture of peace, tolerance and living together.

* Names have been changed for protection reasons.