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SOURCE: All Africa
Mali is entering a new era of opportunity, but while significant progress has been made, the international community 'must not take its foot off the accelerator,' a senior UN relief official said today, returning from a three-day visit to the country.

"I'm bringing for once a good news story in terms of the trajectory that Mali is now on," John Ging, the Head of Operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters in New York.

"I think it encourages us to mobilize in an even stronger way to support the positive momentum that is there," he continued.

Mali has been riven by conflict since a military coup d'état in 2012, resulting in very large scale internal and external displacement in the region. As a result of the recently agreed peace accord, OCHA reports seeing a significant return of those who have been displaced. According to its estimates, the number of returnees is close to 423,000, leaving a balance of about 136,000 refugees in the region, and around 61,000 internally displaced.

"There is good news there in terms of people returning to their homes and beginning the long struggle, of course, to rebuild their lives," Mr. Ging said, stressing that humanitarian needs are still high with four million food insecure people in the country, the most vulnerable of whom are in the north where insecurity prevails.

In addition, global acute malnutrition rates across the region are in some instances above the emergency threshold, such as in Timbuktu - which Mr. Ging visited - where the prevalence is over 17.5 per cent. Meanwhile, OCHA estimates that only 10 per cent of health facilities are currently functional.

Regarding schools, Mr. Ging said 90 per cent were closed as a result of damages during the conflict, especially in the north and east, but progress has been made in reopening many despite 450 remaining closed and only 65 per cent of teachers having returned to work.

"We can look at that as positive progress, but we also don't want to minimize the continuing large scale challenge that is faced across the country," noted the UN official, highlighting that the humanitarian response plan for the country is only 33 per cent funded.

Regarding the town of Timbuktu, Mr. Ging recalled that two years ago, when he visited at the end of the conflict, he was struck by the resilience of the community and particularly the women "who had really demonstrated such strength in the face of horrible adversity."

"Now two years later, I see women at the centre of the recovery. I visited a number of projects, which were small enterprises giving employment led by women. And the energy and the results that were being achieved were hugely impressive."

While in Bamako, Mr. Ging also met with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Solidarity, Humanitarian Affairs and Reconstruction of the North, with whom he discussed the needs of the country and commended the "wisdom of the leadership on all sides who have come to a peace agreement."

"Now the international community has to really walk the walk with Mali in the next phase," he insisted. "Investment now is absolutely essential."

Concluding his remarks, the relief official stressed that he sees the role of women as central to Mali's progress, as they have and will play a key role.

"Similar to my last visit, I was very disturbed by the plight of women, especially when it comes to violence," he stated, bringing attention to the 89 per cent prevalence of female genital mutilation.

"This is abhorrent in 2015 and I think that we have a collective responsibility [... ] to support a transformation on this issue."

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