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Out of School and at Risk: The Drought's Hidden Impact on Mali's Children

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This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

With four million children across nine African countries suffering from acute malnutrition -- one million of whom are steps away from starvation -- the food crisis sweeping across the Sahel is having a devastating impact on the health of young people. This is certainly the most alarming and conspicuous aspect of the disaster. But the crisis is affecting children in more subtle, but still harmful, ways -- causing damage to their safety and well-being that could far outlast the present emergency.

In the hamlets of southern Mali's Segou district, schools are the place to go to see the drought's knock-on effects on local children. As the so-called 'lean' season approaches its peak in July and widespread food and water shortages worsen, children are dropping out of school. In one village, families say they can barely scrape together one meal a day and some children are too hungry or weak to attend class. They estimate that 30 other boys and girls have left their village to seek work in the local gold mines or across the border in Ivory Coast's fishing industry. It's a similar story in a village nearby, where some 20 school-age girls have moved to Mali's capital, Bamako, in the hope of finding work as housemaids. Their families don't know when or whether they will return.

A recent survey of drought-hit communities conducted by the International Rescue Committee and partner agencies across four districts of southern Mali revealed the perception that issues like child labor, low school attendance, and sexual abuse -- all of which existed before the drought -- have been exacerbated by the current crisis.

According to UN estimates, in a normal year, one in five school-aged Malian children doesn't attend school -- three quarters of them being girls. While there's no comprehensive new data or statistics, families interviewed in the regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, Segou and Sikasso report that more children in their villages have stopped attending classes. The reasons cited were threefold. As found in Segou district, many families said their children were too frail from hunger to leave their homes. Others said they are no longer able to afford school fees. But the factor most widely mentioned was that families are sending their children to work in order to cope with the effects of the drought.

As work opportunities in rural villages are scarce, girls tend to move to big towns, Bamako in particular, where they can easily find jobs as housemaids in well-off households, while boys are more likely to join the labor-hungry industry of southern Mali: gold mining. Far from the protection that a family structure affords, the vulnerability of these children spikes. Child maids are often confined to their employer's house, at risk of exploitation and sexual abuse, yet hidden away. And working conditions in artisanal gold mines can be extremely dangerous. Crushing physical labor, exposure to toxic substances such as mercury, frequent accidents and sexual abuse are all well-documented threats to child miners.

A rise in sexual abuse since the start of the crisis, particularly against girls, was also cited as a concern by parents whose children have not left their villages. Families are worried that girls are at a heightened risk of violence now that they travel longer distances to find a working water pump or firewood or work longer hours selling goods in the market to boost their family's income. They are also wary of dangers posed by large groups of roving strangers who come to communities in search of food, water or work.

While difficult to measure and tackle, these inconspicuous effects of the drought on the lives of thousands of Malian children are something that require urgent attention from the international community. Eventually, harvests will improve, food shortages will ease and malnutrition rates will drop. But food on the table will not repair the long-lasting damage that violence, exploitation and lost education will have wrought on the lives of so many children. While tackling malnutrition and food shortages, we must also ensure that children are protected from the less visible, but equally insidious dangers posed by the drought.

Sanj Srikanthan, currently focusing on Mali, is the Emergency Deputy Field Director for the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization that provides emergency and recovery assistance in war and disaster zones.