Staying Strong Despite Crisis in Mali

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Protecting children as politics, poverty, and the pandemic converge

The streets of Bamako are chaotic with masses of people shouting, waving signs, and chanting. In the distance, sounds of gunfire echo. The instability in the streets comes at a time when concerns about the spread of COVID-19 are growing. For many children, it is a terrifying time.

2020 has brought crisis after crisis to Mali. In March, the country held highly contested parliamentary elections that were followed by court challenges, widespread protests, and political violence. The unrest culminated in a military coup in August that removed the president and replaced the government with a junta. Under international pressure and sanctions, the junta committed to create a new civilian government, but protests continue to fill the country’s streets.

Years of effort have resulted in rising numbers of children who complete their primary education. But this year’s instability has threatened to undo much of that work.

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. 45% of its population lives in extreme poverty and 66% of the population, including 78% of women, cannot read. Healthcare is hard to access for most of the population, if it is available at all. And taking safety precautions like obeying lockdowns and curfews can mean income loss and starvation for rural sharecroppers who have no savings to carry them through.

Child labour is ubiquitous, especially among children who have dropped out of school. 55% of children are involved in some form of work, and one out of every three children in Mali work instead of going to school. For years, Right To Play has been working with families and communities to help children escape from child labour and go to school so they can get an education and a chance at a brighter future. Years of effort have resulted in rising numbers of children who complete their primary education. But this year’s instability has threatened to undo much of that work.

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Protecting Malian children in crisis

Since 2012, Right To Play has worked with local communities to defend children’s rights and help boys and girls complete their education. The Jam Suka program helps children leave child labour and return to school, to resist early pregnancy and child marriage, and to claim their right to complete their education. In the 2019-20 school year alone, the program helped 1,282 child labourers leave work and start school.

Jam Suka establishes child rights clubs called “Children’s Parliaments” in schools to teach children about their rights and how they can advocate for themselves. The Children’s Parliaments are matched with trained teachers who support participants and boost their voice. These clubs help sensitize their communities through public performances that teach parents and elders about the importance of children’s rights, including the value of education, the dangers of child labour, and girls’ rights to be free from mistreatment.

When the pandemic began, those critical programs were put into jeopardy. Our team responded quickly, pivoting to remote methods and establishing online and mobile networks that ensured children still had connections and support during lockdowns. Keeping in touch remotely means that despite curfews or protests kids can continue to support one another, maintain a direct connection to their teacher, and have a way to report issues if they arise. The same networks have also been used to transmit school lessons to minimize the interruption in children’s learning during school shutdowns.

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In addition to these networks, our team also created local radio broadcasts that took over the task of sensitizing communities once the pandemic and political chaos meant that public performances were no longer possible. The broadcasts help challenge social norms and equip the children with examples and talking points when they stand up for their rights. The broadcasts have reached over 1.7 million people in Mali in 2020.

As this was happening, the Right To Play program team was also working tirelessly to providing hygiene lessons to children to teach them how to stay safe and healthy. With health infrastructure at a minimum in Mali’s countryside, prevention is an important way to suppress the spread of COVID-19.

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The road ahead

Our approach to helping kids who have dropped out due to rights violations like child labour or marriage to re-enter school involves enrolling them in an active, play-based accelerated learning program. This program compensates for missed lessons and develops their cognitive and academic skills to peer-appropriate levels.

Since schools reopened in Mali in mid-September, we have been working to get children whose learning has been interrupted out of work and into these accelerated learning programs. We are increasing our operations in the Bandiagara region, where thousands of people displaced by war and civil unrest are currently taking refuge.

For these children, accelerated learning programs like the ones we offer are one of their only chances to go back to school and complete their education, opening up opportunities for them that will otherwise be lost forever.

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Teenagers working on traditional mining site in the Bougoudale commune outside the city of Yanfolila, Mali.


Since 2016, Right To Play’s Jam Suka program in Mali has been financially supported by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada. Jam Suka strives to improve child protection in Mali, especially for girls in crisis.