As foreign aid dries up, displaced Malians resort to ‘survival sex’

Biba explains that it has been one year since she moved into the small, corrugated tin shack where we are currently sitting. Her family shares this space with four other mothers and their combined 26 children. There are a lot of mouths to feed and the burden is on Biba and the other women to provide for them.

Biba is originally from Timbuktu, a city in the north of Mali. One year ago, following a coup that ousted Mali's president, insurgent groups moved in and occupied much of the north. Fearing for her family's safety, Biba piled her children into a car and drove south to find safety in Bamako, the country's capital city. Her husband stayed behind to watch over the family home and try to maintain his small shop. The five-day journey south was terrible. Rebel soldiers constantly stopped their car at checkpoints to steal their money and possessions.

Biba did not have any friends or relatives who could host her in Bamako, so when she arrived, she joined up with four other families and rented the shack where we sit today. It is a very small space, and there isn’t enough room for everyone to lie down inside. When it rains, which happens nearly every day during the wet season, many have to sleep outdoors.

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Compared with northern Mali, where suicide bombings and mortar attacks have taken place over the last two weeks, Bamako is a relatively good place for Biba and her family to be. But life for displaced women like Biba is far from easy. For example, it is practically impossible to find a job. Some days, Biba is able to make a bit of money doing laundry and housecleaning in wealthier neighborhoods, but it's not regular work and it pays very little. She never makes enough money to cover the cost of living in Bamako. Rent alone is about $30 per month – an astronomical amount for Biba. Every month, she and the four other women in the house stress over how they will pay the rent.

While it is far too shameful for Biba to admit during our conversation, a humanitarian worker who is accompanying us says that Biba is engaging in survival sex, a form of prostitution used by those in extreme need. It is only through survival sex that she can make enough money to pay her rent and purchase the basics for her children. "Displaced women in Bamako who engage in survival sex will often have multiple clients to be able to pay for their rent, food, and clothes," the humanitarian worker explained. Perhaps most upsetting is that it is not just adult women who submit to this practice, but young girls as well – sometimes of their own volition, and sometimes under pressure from a family member.

There is no way to know how many women and girls are engaging in survival sex in Bamako, but local humanitarian organizations say it is a highly visible problem. The consequences for the women involved are extremely severe. It is well known within the community which women are submitting to survival sex, and they will face tremendous stigmatization – particularly in the conservative, Muslim north of Mali. It will be practically impossible for a woman like Biba to ever return home to Timbuktu and face her husband.

The humanitarian response to the scourge of survival sex in Mali should be straightforward. Increasing humanitarian assistance to these communities by offering basic support in the form of food, cash, and healthcare could potentially eliminate the need for survival sex. Presently, humanitarians have received only 37 percent of the money they require to provide basic services. Increased funding from the U.S. and other donors would surely help to keep women safe.

An additional challenge, however, is that displaced families like Biba's are not immediately visible within Bamako’s urban sprawl because they are integrated into communities and neighborhoods. Humanitarian organizations are having an understandably difficult time identifying and keeping track of all the people in need, as well as ensuring that they receive regular aid.

Humanitarians in Mali must work to improve their displacement tracking systems and make sure that those who have been displaced are identified and given basic services. For Biba and the countless women and girls like her, their future depends on it.

Hersh is a senior advocate at Refugees International, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of displaced and stateless people worldwide and accepts no government or UN funding.