Studying to prevent other children from walking in her footsteps

Formerly associated with a non-state armed group, Fatoumata* is now with her family and making her way back to school

Portrait of a young girl wearing a yellow headscarf, holding a book at school
UNICEF/UN0538108/Rooftop Productions
17 November 2021

Kidal, Mali – "Fatoumata is very brave and she is the first in her class," says her teacher proudly in his school in Kidal in northern Mali, showing the girl's report card in hand. Fatoumata has come a long way.

Abused by her stepmother, the teenager ran away and left her village when she was only 14. "When I left, the sorrow and pain I felt were so great that I wasn’t afraid," she recalls. "My stepmother kept me out of school, forced me to do difficult work and my father said nothing about her abuse.” Fatoumata joined a family on the move and arrived in an area where she knew no one.

She crossed paths with a girl her age working for a non-state armed group. "She could see that I didn't know anyone or what to do so she wanted to help me. She offered me to work with her.”

For seven months Fatoumata was in charge of the shopping, the laundry, the dishes and many other household tasks in the camp. "One day, the leader of the group came to see us and told us that we could no longer stay there because we were too young," she recalls. "He had met people from UNICEF’s partner organization Solisa who explained to him that this was not the place for children. He wanted us to leave right away. The same day, some NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) facilitators came and we left for Kidal.”

Portrait of a young woman wearing a headscarf covering her face except her eyes
UNICEF/UN0538105/Rooftop Productions

I met children of my own age [...] The time at the centre opened my mind.


Once in Kidal, Fatoumata was taken into care at the UNICEF-supported centre for children associated with armed forces and non-state armed groups, run by its partner Solisa. “I had a visit with a doctor, I was given clothes, I met children of my own age, but above all, the time at the centre opened my mind," she explains, her face suddenly glowing.

"Thanks to the talks with the facilitators, I learnt a lot of things: what is domestic violence, what are the risks of early marriage, why parents should encourage and make efforts to ensure that girls also study and not only boys", she explains, adding that, since this time, she has been helping her friends in who have also been in difficult situation.

Young girl with a school bag, walking outside
UNICEF/UN0538107/Rooftop Productions

Her stay at the centre was also an opportunity to prepare her family reunification and her life project. "I was afraid of being reunited with my family, but I wanted to see my brothers and sisters again. I missed them, especially my little sister who always supported me when I cried at home.”

With the support of Solisa's facilitators, Fatoumata's family was contacted and she was reunited in November 2020. "It went well. I explained that what I wanted most of all was to study," she insists. "I want to understand life and the things around me.” As the school was closed, an aunt living in Kidal was contacted and agreed to host the girl during the school year.

"I have many dreams and hopes," Fatoumata says smiling widely. "I want to do many things: go to school, become a nurse and then come back here and do something, help my community and prevent other children from finding themselves in my situation.”

I want to study to understand life and the things around me.

Young girl standing by the blackboard in her classroom
UNICEF/UN0538107/Rooftop Productions

In West and Central Africa, UNICEF worked with all parties to the conflicts to facilitate their release, and with protection partners to provide them with care and socio-economic support to facilitate their re-integration into their community. The holistic care offered to children includes shelter, psychosocial and medical support, family tracing and reunification, remedial education and vocational training.

*Name changed for protection