02/22/2013 01:02 EST | Updated 04/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Mali: The People Behind the Headlines

A Malian girl stands in the street in Gao, northern Mali, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013. A French soldier has been confirmed dead during a military operation in northern Mali, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

We've seen an increasing amount in the news about Mali lately. A West African country in the grips of a conflict so brutal almost 400,000 people, mainly women and children, have had to flee their homes. Some have fled to southern parts of Mali, others across borders to Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.

In recent weeks, French and Malian military forces have made their way into North Mali to reclaim territory from extremist rebels who had taken over the region months ago.

As a humanitarian worker, I know this story goes well-beyond the vast geopolitical backdrop of military forces fighting rebel extremists to the Malian people themselves -- the men, women and children -- who need our help and attention.


Photo: Plan Canada

Can we imagine something of this scale happening in Canada? What would that feel like? Imagine you are sitting at home one evening with your family, your children doing their homework. Suddenly, your door bursts open and your neighbour tells you they are coming and we must all leave now! No time to waste, you grab what possessions you can, bundle up your family and take off into the night, wondering where you will go, where you will sleep, and how you will keep your family safe. You have left behind your home, your friends, maybe even other family members.

This may sound like an extreme scenario to some, but to Malian people it's very real.

At Plan we are no strangers to Mali. We have been operating there for 37 years now, working to deliver child protection, education, health, and livelihood programs. We know the country and the resilience of its people. We also know first-hand what happens in a country like Mali when conflict breaks out -- especially to women and children.

We fear for little girls who could be forced into marriage by their parents, because they feel it's the only way to keep their daughter safe while they are on the move.

With the displacement of hundreds of thousands, we are encouraged that there is currently no need for large-scale refugee camps in South Mali since extended families and communities have opened their homes to displaced people from the north. But we do fear how this rapid influx of Malians to the south will impact food prices and disrupt already tenuous food supply chains.

This fear is warranted.

According to the United Nations and other local sources, even before the escalation, more than 2-million people were at risk of food insecurity in Mali. Today, over 650,000 Malian children are at risk of acute malnutrition.

Like children here in Canada, Malian children also deserve to feel and be safe. But during these times of conflict children are usually the most vulnerable. They often become separated from their families and are at increased risk of being abducted, abused, trafficked, or recruited as child soldiers.

With these concerns in mind, Plan has been stepping up our regular programs in Mali to help people through this period in their lives.

We are providing cash supplements to support and alleviate burdens to households and communities who have taken in their northern neighbours.

We are providing additional teachers and classrooms, as well as school-feeding programs, to accommodate the influx of children from the north. For students who have been on the move, we are providing catch-up classes and exams so they won't fall behind.

We are also creating safe, child-friendly spaces for children to play in, as well as emotional counselling and support for children dealing with the kind of trauma that comes from living in a conflict zone and living on the run.

We are also monitoring for incidents of sexual violence against girls and women and helping to mitigate that risk where we can. We are doing this because we know from experience that sexual violence is often a by-product of these conflict and emergency situations.


Children get ready to play football match at child-friendly space in Ségou. Photo: Plan Canada

For Plan, all of these efforts are critically important because we want to make sure that whenever this conflict is over the Malian people, through their strength and resilience, will be in a better position to recover. Though we know it won't be an easy road.

War and conflict can have ripple effects that last a lifetime. Children who were taken out of school may never make it back, therefore limiting their opportunity to have a successful life and to bring themselves and their families out of poverty. Family members who became separated while on the run may not find their way back to each other.

Other headlines may continue to focus on military interventions, but let's remember that wars happen to people as well as countries. Malians are very real people in the midst of a very real, humanitarian crisis. Maybe that's the other headline worth our attention.

Post-Intervention Mali