September 11, 2009
By Kathambi Kinoti
Somalia has been in turmoil for the past eighteen years. What is it like for women?
Peace has eluded Somalia since 1991 when the military regime of President Siad Barre was ousted. No single central authority has yet been able to successfully govern the state of Somalia. At least fourteen national reconciliation conferences have been held, but none has brought absolute peace. The longest period of calm the capital Mogadishu and the surrounding south and central Somalia have experienced was the seven months from June to December 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was in control.
Hibo Yassin is the Regional Representative of COSPE, an international NGO that works in Somalia. She says that it is important to interrogate what is meant by security. Although the UIC had support from civilians who were tired of insecurity, they soon realised that the security came at a cost. Women for instance, were subjected to severe punishment if they did not strictly adhere to certain modes of dress.
An uneasy Ethiopia, which shares Somalia’s western border, soon intervened. Its United States-backed army fought to expel the UIC and install the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) which continues to be besieged by Al-Shabaab, a group that was formerly part of the UIC. The US says that the group is linked to al-Qaeda and has put it on its terror list.
In the same year that the war first erupted, Somaliland in the north-western region of the country went its own way. It declared its independence, formed a government and has been stable ever since. However, so far Somaliland has failed to secure international recognition. The easternmost tip of Africa, where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean lies in Puntland, a self-governing part of Somalia, which even though it has not been entirely peaceful, has enjoyed more stability than the central and southern part of the country.
In African countries religious or ethnic homogeneity is rare. Somalia is an exception. Almost all its people are Muslim and of the same ethnic extraction  But this virtual homogeneity has not provided immunity against civil war. In Somalia’s case, clan differences have fomented the conflict. Military interventions by the United States in 1992 and the Ethiopian armed forces from 2006 to 2008 have further exacerbated the situation, deepening divisions and "aggravating tensions that have erupted into conflicts-within-conflicts."
The UN estimates that there are 1.55 million internally displaced persons (IDPS) in Somalia, and almost 350,000 Somali refugees in neighbouring countries. Although main cause of displacement is the perpetual conflict, the ongoing drought and lack of livelihoods are significant contributing factors. Food shortages currently affect 3.8 million people, and according to the UN, Somalis live below the water poverty level. Conflict and military interventions have degraded the country’s already fragile environment and the general lawlessness has provided opportunities for the dumping of toxic waste from pesticides used in Europe.
Somalia's maternal mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world, at 1400 per 100,000 live births. Early marriages and teenage pregnancies are common in Somalia; forty five per cent of women now aged 20-24 were married by the age of 18. Girls who get married or give birth young have a greater vulnerability to violence and health problems.
Violence against women
The most prevalent form of violence against women in Somalia is female genital mutilation (FGM), estimated at about 98 per cent of all women and girls. Research conducted by women’s organisations in Somalia and Somaliland indicates that there may be a link between insecurity and the form of FGM practiced. In Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, where there has been stability since 1991, the incidence of infibulation has decreased. In Somalia’s capital city Mogadishu the incidence of the practice has increased. The research report says:
“Bearing in mind the commonly cited reason for FGM, of the need to ‘protect’ the girl’s virginity, this may reflect an increased perceived need to ‘protect’ their daughters. It may additionally reflect the beginnings of behaviour cha.nge in response to more exposure to campaigns against the practice in Hargeisa.”
Behaviour change is also reflected in the fact that more girls and women say that they do not intend to have their daughters undergo any form of circumcision. Many Somalis believe that FGM is a religious obligation, a view not shared by religious leaders, most of whom oppose infibulation on religious grounds because of the physical harm that it causes. The report however urges caution in regarding religious leaders as allies in eradicating FGM because a large number of them are neutral towards the so-called “sunna” form of circumcision which is regarded as less severe.
Rape is widespread in Somalia, although being a taboo subject, it is under-reported. A 2009 UNDP report on human security in the Arab region says that “war-time assaults on women take place in a context of lawlessness, displacement and armed clashes such as those in …Somalia where gender roles are polarized. In these theatres of conflict, men often compensate for their own insecurities and loss of dominance through intensified aggression against women.”
Yassin was part of the group that facilitated the formation of the Somali Women’s Agenda, a movement that has opened space for women’s engagement in crucial legislative and policy processes. She says that women played a critical role in the negotiations in Djibouti that led to the formation of the TFG and at one point helped to break a stalemate that threatened to bring the talks to a halt. About eight cent of members of Somalia’s parliament are women, and there are three female cabinet ministers.
Keeping the society going
In the absence of a central government it is difficult to imagine how people can survive in a war-torn country for 18 years. International NGOs have provided critical humanitarian assistance and remittances from Somalis in the diaspora have helped keep the country afloat. However, according to Yassin, the women of Somalia have played the most significant role in keeping communities going. She says that the conflict has facilitated a shift in gender roles, with many women becoming the primary income earners. This means that women have acquired greater economic power even though overall poverty levels remain high. They have kept the economy going through small scale trade. Civil society organisations - and mostly women’s organisations - have filled in for the government by running schools and hospitals.
Somali women have shown tremendous resilience throughout the conflict, and hopes are high that the TFG will re-establish peace and security in Somalia. Women’s rights advocates continue to press for greater inclusion of women in the leadership of the country. “During the war, women have been running the country, they have been the breadwinners,” says Yassin. “How can they not be in leadership when the country is at peace?”
1. There is a significant Somali Bantu ethnic minority in the South and Central part of the country. They are disadvantaged and face exclusion and discrimination.