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Psychological support to overcome the worst kind of war-related violence

© UNICEF Mali/2013/Maiga
Discussing with a psychologist (left) and one facilitator (middle), Anna (showing her back) discusses outside her home.

By Ismaël Maiga & Cindy Cao

Anna* experienced the worst of war: theft, murder, rape, disappearance of loved ones… She watched as her family was destroyed. But she has escaped the war and is learning to put it all behind her. Through a project on gender-based violence supported by UNICEF, Anna regularly sees a facilitator and a psychologist to help her talk through the trauma she experienced. Will psychological treatment be the key to helping her go from feeling like a fragile victim to being a strong woman who fights to survive?

MOPTI, Mali, 27 June 2013 – Before the war, Anna had a business in Timbuktu that was doing well enough for her family to live comfortably. Her life turned upside down one evening in May 2012 when she crossed paths with an armed rebel group. It all happened very quickly. She was robbed of all she had - one million CFA francs, or about US$2,000. She watched as her brothers were killed right in front of her —brutally shot in the head. She fainted, unable to withstand the brutality of her attackers.

The rebels abducted her eldest daughter, barely 15 years old. She was held captive for seven days and was repeatedly gang raped and abused. Anna’s husband who was doing farm work at the time of the attacks was unable to stomach the way in which his family was humiliated. He has since been declared missing, leaving Anna to care for six children, including a young infant.

Anna and her children were left to their own devices in the poor districts of Mopti - their temporary home built amidst garbage. Where Anna lives there is no drinking water, toilet facilities or roads -- just piles of rubbish. Her daughter became pregnant after she was raped. Anna does odd jobs as a way to earn a living to help her and her family survive.

Anna is not the only one in this predicament. Approximately 300,000 people have moved to the south of the country, forced from the north to escape the worst. That is, if they had not experienced it already.** 

Once in Mopti, Anna met Assiata Cissé and Mariame Kallo who are both in charge of a project on Gender-Based Violence implemented by Family Care International with UNICEF support. One is a facilitator and the other, a psychologist. Both are responsible for identifying, referring and treating victims. “Regarding the attacks on women, the only thing we can do is to share. The attacks are sometimes so violent that women go mad.” The facilitator’s role is to make contact with these women, refer them and check on them by visiting them often. Anna and her family also receive medical care from the project when needed.

Mariame offers psychological help. “I heal with words,” she says. “I teach victims about the symptoms of their traumatic experience: nightmares, fear, anxiety, so that they do not try to hide them and that they understand that these reactions are normal. Victims are sometimes stigmatised and pressure from society continues to affect their lives. There is also a great deal to be done in communities to raise awareness.” Through the project, sessions are held at the Women’s Centre to inform and advise people.

Anna is now beginning to accept her pain of the past. “It’s God’s will”, she says peacefully. “I breast-feed my 12 month old son and my 4 month old grand-daughter because my daughter isn’t strong enough to breast-feed. None of my children go to school anymore because I don’t have the money to send them.”

The care she receives from the two women heading the project gives her new reason to have hope. She now has plans for the future. “My mother stayed in Timbuktu. As soon as I have enough money, even if it’s just enough for the trip there, I promise to go get her, so she can spend her golden years with us.”

Only a strong, healthy spirit will help Anna to shift from being a vulnerable, displaced, destitute survivor of violence to a woman who fights to survive and save her children.

*Anna is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her identity.
**Source: OCHA, Humanitarian Snapshot, 6 June 2013 : 298 027 internally displaced people (IDP) and 174 129 refugees.

UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work visit:

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For more information, please contact:
Hector Calderon, Chief Communication, UNICEF Mali,
Tel. +233 75 99 40 89,

Cindy Cao, Public Information Officer, UNICEF Mali,
Tel. +233 75 99 58 46,



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