Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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The Scars of Somalia: Conflict, Displacement, and Gender-Based Violence

By Sagal Sheikh-Ali

Sagal Sheikh-Ali is Programme Coordinator at the Somali Women’s Development Center (SWDC).  The organisation strives to minimise the number of women who are subjected to violence by empowering them through access to justice and livelihood programmes. Sagal attended the WELDD workshop on public and political participation in Banjul, The Gambia in March 2014.

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Somalia, a nation engulfed by over two decades of a brutal civil has been anything but a safe haven for women and children. During the war women, and especially young girls, were used by warring tribal factions as tools to gain advantages over one another. Fighters from these factions would brutally assault or even rape women from other clans in front of their own families as an act of vengeance. It was through such humiliations in the years that followed which brought about a significant cultural shift in how women were viewed within their own communities. Voiceless and weak on many occasions, women in Somalia no longer commanded full respect within their own families or with society at large.

Rape remains an epidemic affecting the most vulnerable, who in most cases are women and girls. A representative from UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that 800 rapes had been reported in Mogadishu in the first six months of 2013, and the UN Special Representative on sexual violence stated that over 1,700 women had been affected by sexual and gender based violence in Somalia in 2012. Despite the lack of statistics for this year, this number is bound to have increased due to the conflicts in many regions, especially those being liberated by the Somali National Army (SNA) and AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia).  

The conflict in Somalia created an opportunity for perpetrators to commit crimes against women knowing all too well that they had impunity. Despite Somalia electing a federal government in August 2012, sexual violence against women in Somalia remains widespread due to the continuing lawlessness and insecurity in some parts of the country. More than 1.5m people are displaced and live on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Many of these families fled due to famine and instability in regions previously held by the militant group Al Shabab. These families are mostly made up of women and children, including the elderly and disabled, who have fled without any belongings except for the clothes on their backs. Whilst fleeing some of the girls and women were raped, their belongings were looted and some mothers were separated from their children. 

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A woman carries her child in a IDP camp where SWDC works.

The weak judicial system combined with a lack of trained lawmakers has allowed perpetrators in most cases to get away with sexual violence. In many cases women who file a complaint are either threatened or ridiculed at the police stations and their complaints thrown out without proper investigation. In other cases women fear reprisal attacks or being ostracized by their own community and as a result stay silent. These examples are just a few of the many factors that discourage women from reporting crimes of sexual violence and ensuring those responsible face the legal consequences of their actions.

The Somali Women Development Center (SWDC) works towards helping survivors by providing medical, psychosocial and legal aid support. Our legal aid team visits Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in all 16 districts of the Benadir region including Karaan, Shibis, Dharkenley, Wadajir and Daynile on a regular basis. We offer legal aid awareness as well as mediating in disputes that happen at these camps. SWDC also provides income generating and skills trainings such as tailoring, numeracy and literacy to survivors that not only empower them but also help them to rebuild their lives. In the past two years alone, an estimated 13,690 people have participated in awareness sessions on topics including gender-based violence (GBV), child protection, sanitation and HIV/AIDs reduction and prevention. Thus far this year there have been over 280 GBV cases recorded and provided with referral mechanism and 880 cases of HIV/AIDs cases cross-referred to medical centres.

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SWDC staff distribute tarpaulins to IDPs at Ex Al Cadala camp.

This year SWDC will be supporting the 16 days of activism by holding events such as awareness sessions at IDP camps on the outskirts of the city discussing topics including domestic violence, girl education and female genital mutilation (FGM). We will also be doing radio debates and holding workshops to bring together all stakeholders to commemorate important dates including women human rights defenders day and human rights day.

We are hoping that this occasion will be a chance to raise awareness about the situation of Somali women and girls with people in our country and across the world.

This is the 11th entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series.  We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

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Peace and Security