Sow and her children are now living in relative safety with her eldest sister in this West African nation, as she helps her sibling
run her two tangana (informal township restaurants).
"The (Islamist) occupation was not good at all, it affected many lives and will continue to haunt many of us for years to come,” Sow tells IPS, refusing to explain further, except to say it was "hell”.
"Though I’ll never forget what happened, I decided to get over it and focus on the future of my three children who are now eating well thanks to my elder sister’s support,” she says emotionally, adding that the imposition of Sharia Law in northern Mali affected not only women, but everybody in the occupied territories.
As she speaks, a group of men who work at a nearby construction site each wait their turn to be served with a plate of tchep (fried rice and fish).
But Sow is still concerned about the future of her eldest child. Her eight-year-old son has not attended school since armed Islamist groups allied with Al-Qaeda occupied northern Mali back in April 2012. Her daughters, aged four and two, are yet to attend school.
"My son’s first year at school was disrupted by the occupation. It’s now a dilemma because he has not been attending school since, and next year he will be nine. And I’m not sure when real peace will return to Mali so that he can go back to school again,” she says.
While a French-led international intervention in January – requested by Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore – eventually pushed the Islamist fighters out of the north, real peace in the West African nation seems a long way off. Defeated Jihadists have now resorted to suicide bombings and other guerrilla attacks.
A report, "Mali in the Aftermath of the French Military Operation”, released in late February by the South African-based Institute for Security Studies, called for the north to be quickly stabilised and secured now that it has been liberated.
"In order to consolidate the military gains achieved and given France’s expressed desire to scale down its presence or, at least, to ‘multilateralise’ its commitment, the idea now is to deploy a United Nations operation that will take over from AFISMA (African-led International Mission in Mali),” the report, authored by Lori Anne Théroux-Bénoni, states.
The war in northern Mali has driven thousands of men, women and children away from their homes. To date, there are 167,370 Malian refugees scattered in five countries in West Africa, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says.
Mauritania has the highest number, 68,385 refugees, followed by 50,000 refugees in Niger, and 48,939 in Burkina Faso. There are 26 and 20 refugees in Guinea and Togo, respectively.
Awo Dede Cromwell, reporting officer for the situation in Mali at the UNHCR’s regional office for West Africa, tells IPS that there are 31 Malian asylum seekers in Senegal whose status has yet to be examined by the National Commission of Eligibility at the Interior Ministry. "They are seven females and 24 males. There are three children among the 31 asylum seekers,” Cromwell explains.
Sow, however, is one of a number of refugees in Senegal who have not registered with the UNHCR, as she was lucky to be taken in by a relative. Many Malians are not so lucky, as they have been forced to live in refugee camps in Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
But the situation her son faces with his schooling is the same as that of other Malian refugee children.
"In the refugee camps, many Malian children have already missed crucial weeks and months of schooling. If they don’t get access to education quickly, they may even miss the entire school year and be at risk of dropping out of school when returning to Mali,” Laurent Duvillier, regional communication specialist at U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) West and Central Africa, explains to IPS.
"The future of these Malian schoolchildren shouldn’t be jeopardised because they are refugees. How can Mali rebuild after the conflict if thousands of its children are deprived from access to education?” he asks.
Duvillier says children who fled violence in Mali have been through a lot of suffering and that getting access to education also means getting back to a "normal life” – playing with other children, learning and smiling.
He says parents who are refugees have little time to look after their children. "If children are left alone, they can easily be at risk of all kinds of abuse and violence. It’s a great relief for parents if they know there is a safe place where their children can learn and play without being in danger.”
Duvillier says that together with the UNHCR, UNICEF is working to train volunteer teachers, distribute school supplies to refugee and displaced children from Mali, and set up tents where teaching can take place in Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali.
"But unfortunately, many Malian refugee children still have no access to education. We need more children in temporary learning spaces, we need more trained and equipped teachers, we need to make sure that what refugee children learn in the camps can be of great use once they go back to Mali.
"More resources are needed as requirements for education needs remain largely underfunded to date,” he concludes.