As Mali pursues peace talks and also prepares for war, Malian women insist they should be at the table for both. They argue women are the primary victims of rebel and terrorist groups occupying the north.
Mariam Cisse sits on a wooden bench with her arm wrapped in a sling, her sad eyes cast downward and her voice low. She's wracked with guilt over leaving her five children behind with relatives in the desert town of Timbuktu, occupied by al-Qaeda linked militants, while she sought medical treatment in the country's southern capital, Bamako.
"I could not bring them, I am sick," she repeated several times, rocking back and forth. She is too scared to go back.
In April, an armed gang of Tuareg separatist rebels and a radical Islamist faction invaded Cisse's hometown of Timbuktu. The Malian army threw down their weapons and abandoned their posts, leaving the rebels in control. When Cisse tried to run, she fell and dislocated her shoulder.
"There was nobody there to fight them," said Cisse.
"[The rebels] destroyed all of our houses, the hospitals ... The rebels have kidnapping women and taking them outside the town for days raping them and leaving them sick."
The Tuareg-led rebellion was then hijacked by hardliner Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a splinter group called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJOA) and the Malian-based Ansar Dine.
According to the United Nations, the human rights violations became "more systemic" and include an extreme version of Sharia law with women as the primary victims. They have been forced to wear veils and banned from working, shopping in the market, and accessing education and other social services. There have been public executions, amputations, stonings and floggings.
While Cisse is physically weak and visibly scared, several leading women's rights defenders are speaking out to demand more female participation in decisions concerning the crisis and more protection for women. Mali's interim government has already met with the local Malian insurgents to attempt a negotiated end to the crisis.
"Women are being left out of the process," said Nana Sissako Traore, president of the Malian Women's Rights and Citizenship group. She has been defending women's rights in Mali for more than two decades.
In an interview at the Maison de la Femme (women's house) in Bamako, Traore was indignant over the lack of female participation in negotiations so far, both in discussions over a military intervention and now government negotiations with rebel groups.
She said any negotiations with the rebels and terrorist groups must address their treatment of women.
"If [rebel groups] say they want negotiations, they can't deny women from receiving medical care in the hospital," Traore insisted. "You can't force a woman who's about to give birth to do so on her own because there's no female to assist her."
According to Traore, women in northern Mali are being denied medical treatment in several clinics and hospitals because radical Islamist militants refuse to let male medical staff treat women. That's why Mariam Cisse was forced to leave her children in Timbuktu to come south.
Leading human rights lawyer Saran Keita Diakite is president of the Women's Peace and Security network for the Wast African economic community ECOWAS. She was designated as a female mediator during negotiations for Mali's transitional government in April and told officials that women should "be present throughout the mediation process." Today, she is disappointed that has not happened.
According to UN Women, a sample of 24 major peace processes since 1992 reveals female participation in negotiations has only been 7 percent.
Sharia law a 'cover up'
Keita insists that jihadists are not motivated solely by their desire to impose Sharia law, but rather their criminal interests in using the north for drugs and arms trafficking and training new recruits.
"They want to apply Sharia law?" she scoffed. "They cut off people arms and beat up women who have had sex outside marriage ... while they themselves are raping girls and women and are forcing girls to marry. The first night, [the bride] is forced to have sex with five to six men. It's not Sharia."
Keita said it is a smokescreen. "What is sure is that they are engaged in an enormous drug trafficking operation, and they are using Sharia and everything else to cover that up."
Back in the dusty hillside of Segoroni, Mariam Cisse yearns for her children in Timbuktu.
"Now, we're waiting for the government to go and attack [the terrorists] there. We open our eyes waiting for the government."
That's even less likely to happen now that Mali's Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra has been forced to resign after being arrested by soldiers under the command of military junta leaders. If the UN Security Council approves the proposed military intervention, and ECOWAS can raise the money, it would still require months of training for the under-funded and ill-equipped Malian army before any 'offensive' military action took place.
Mali's women leaders in Bamako say they will continue their push to defend and protect women in the north.
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