WASHINGTON - Two gang rapes, including one filmed and shared widely on social media, have shocked the nation of Mali.
The first case involved four assailants aged 16 to 25 who took turns raping a 14-year-old girl while she pleaded for help. When video of the incident began circulating on social media, it drew anger across Mali and an outcry from human rights groups.
The second case involved three assailants. Both took place in the capital city, Bamako.
Malian authorities have arrested 14 people involved in the two rapes and a man involved in a separate pedophilia case. The suspects include the four assailants seen on the video, authorities said.
‘Time to be tough’
But advocates say arrests aren’t enough. They want legal reforms and cultural changes.
“This has been going on for a long time,” said Mahamane Mariko, who leads la Convention des Réformateurs Pour L’alternance de la Justice, a group advocating for political and judicial reform. “But in the society that we live in, in most cases women do not voice their rape because it shameful.”
Mamadou Z. Sidibe, national deputy director of the police, said authorities need to crack down on sexual violence.
“It’s time to be tough, zero tolerance as they say,” he told VOA’s Bambara service. “It is about protecting the ethics of our youth. We want to prevent these behaviors from becoming a social phenomenon.”
Widespread gender-based violence
At least 300 women are victims of sexual violence each year in Mali, says Bamako-based Women in Law and Development in Africa, citing local police records. But the group believes the actual number is much higher, and few of the cases end in a conviction.
The problem has worsened since a political crisis in 2012 rendered much of northern Mali lawless and occupied by extremist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
In 2014, human rights groups filed a complaint in a Bamako court on behalf of 80 women and girls who were victims of rape and abuse. The complaint called for a full-scale investigation of crimes against humanity during the 2012-2013 occupation of northern Mali. At that time, allegations of serious misconduct, including rape, by U.N. peacekeepers in Mali also came to light.
Issues of violence against women were brought to the fore again in late December 2017 when a 27-year-old receptionist in the office of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was found murdered at work. Police suspect her husband.
Why has it taken so long for Malian authorities to take stronger action against rape?
“We must see the crime before we can fight it,” Sidibe said. “And the difficulty is the silence of the victims and their relatives who do not have the courage to come forward. Families close their eyes and prefer to keep quiet on a rape case because they think, in keeping quiet, they protect the honor of the victim.”
Advocates say the rape that was shared across social media proves there is still a long way to go in solving the problem of violence against women and girls.
“The act that they did, by raping a young girl, filming it and posting it on social media, shows that this is not a country we are living in, that we are in a jungle,” said Diakite Kadidia Fofana, president of Collectif des Amazones, one of the largest women’s associations in Mali.
“Many associations are standing up for this cause and calling for the proper punishment to be applied. … They have ruined her life. They should know that anyone who does a horrible act like that should be severely punished. That’s what we are fighting for.”