This year’s International Women’s Day is a global call to eliminate inequality between men and women. That won’t be easy in Somalia, where women face discrimination in nearly every aspect of life.
In health, simply giving birth remains one of the most dangerous things a Somali woman can do — so dangerous that at current rates 1 in 22 Somali mothers will die while having children.
And when their daughters grow up, most will face FGM, which can lead to life-long health consequences or even death.
In justice and policing, women struggle to be treated fairly in both formal courts and traditional settings: they’re not included in decision making and crimes against them, from land theft to sexual abuse, are often dismissed. Fewer than 10% of police officers are women and there is only 1 female judge in the entire country.
In politics, although we just saw the extraordinary achievement of a new district council in Dinsoor that has almost 50% women’s representation (10 out of 21 members) — this is the exception not the rule.
In other councils, the presence of women is usually nominal. In the federal parliament, only 24% of seats are held by women, and in Somaliland, there is only 1 MP out of a total of 82.
What’s holding women back?
There are many reasons for these inequalities, but one common theme underpins them all: bias.
UNDP’s new Gender Equality Index, launched last week, shows how great these biases against women are — not just in Somalia but across the globe. According to report, which includes data from 75 countries covering 80% of the world’s population:
- 88% of men AND women are biased against women
- 47% think men make better political leaders
- 41% think men make better business leaders
Levels of discrimination against women in Somalia are almost certainly higher than this global average, as is the sense of freedom with which many people feel they can belittle half the population, dismiss their rights, abuse their bodies and exclude them from clinics, offices and parliaments.
But in many places, Somali women are taking a stand, breaking stereotypes, taking on new roles and finding new voices. We celebrate three of them today.
Fatuma: police legal advisor
“I am a member of the community. Problems that happen to other people in the community can also happen to me and my family… I am a police officer to help solve those problems.”
As a police legal advisor, Fatuma works in stations all over Puntland to train her colleagues on community policing and how to handle violent sexual crimes. These are long and tiring days, but every morning, without fail, she makes them a little longer by first driving her own daughter to school.
“It’s not safe to have her take the bus” explains Fatuma. “Sometimes there’s just one male driver, and things can happen.”
She’s right to be concerned. Rape is one of the commonest complaints dealt with by Garowe police, and also one for which they have traditionally been least equipped.
Few police officers know how to deal with victims of sexual abuse: how to provide a safe environment where women feel comfortable explaining what has happened; how to protect rights and privacy while evidence and statements are collected; or where to refer women for medical and legal support.
Now women like Fatuma are brining these skills to the force.
A few months ago, she helped out with a typical case: a woman whose daughter had been raped in the nearby IDP camp. Fatuma took statements, arranged for the daughter to get post-rape treatment at a local clinic, and introduced the mother to legal-aid services set up Puntland Legal Aid Centre, which is supported by UNDP. The rapist was caught and is being sentenced.
“One of our roles is to encourage people to contact the police whenever there is an incident,” says Fatuma. “And to tell them there is no shame in fighting for their rights.”
As well as training other officers, Fatuma works with the Ministry of Justice to draft new laws on sexual violence and better policies for the police. To this task, she brings legal expertise developed on a four-year law course set up by Puntland State University and UNDP that offers scholarships to the brightest students who otherwise couldn’t pay the fees.
“I’m currently working on a law to keep girls safe in schools — including provisions, for example, to make sure that there is not just one male driver on a school bus, but either two drivers or some female member of staff from the school who accompanies the children,” explains Fatuma.
“Drafting this law takes a lot of time, but once it passes parliament, we will start training the police on how to enforce it.”
Maybe then Fatuma can stop driving her own daughter to school.
Asmahan: activist for women’s political representation
“In 10 years time, I want to see women MPs hold 50% of seats in Somaliland’s parliament. That’s my dream.”
As of today, there is only one female MP out of a total of 82 in all of Somaliland, so you have to admire the scope of Asmahan’s ambition. But if anyone can turn one person into 41, it’s her.
The child of small town in the north, Asmahan was one of the first girls to go to school in her area. She learned fluent English, won herself a scholarship to study in Khartoum and then helped found one of the most effective women’s advocacy groups in Somaliland — the Nagaad Network, which brings together 46 different women’s organisations across Somaliland and campaigns tirelessly for women’s economic, social and political rights.
“There are women who are educated, intelligent and capable of doing the same work as men, or even better,” says Asmahan. “The only things preventing them realising their rights are cultural beliefs and men who feel intimidated.”
So far, Asmahan and her fellow activists have managed to achieve presidential approval for a 22% quota for women MPs. Now they have to turn that commitment into an actual act of parliament before the next elections, scheduled for November.
Asmahan is also pushing for better representation of women in local government councils (it currently stands at under 3% in Somaliland) and has been working with individual political parties and a mixed-gender parliamentary caucus (set up with support from UNDP) to lobby for change.
To help with all these initiatives, UNDP recently brought Asmahan and other women from Somaliland’s civil society organisations to Ethiopia to learn the latest techniques for organisation, leadership and negotiation.
“The training was useful, but the important thing is that we women now pass on what we learned to other women. That’s the only way it will make a lot of difference,” says Asmahan.
“Nothing should stop women being part of local- and national-level decision making. Religion doesn’t prevent it. Not should any cultural beliefs. But we are in a society where men are in charge.”
That’s true for now. But with Asmahan on the case, maybe not for much longer.
Dr Khadra: Director of Hargeisa MAS Children’s Hospital
“I want to contribute my skills and knowledge to the people of Somaliland.”
Dr Khadra oversees MAS Children’s Hospital, which cares for almost 100 children every day. But she doesn’t run the hospital: she also had a hand in building it.
After returning from several years in Italy, where she studied medicine and worked in Rome and Turin, Khadra joined hands with donors to fund and construct the new facility — now the largest in Somaliland.
On her watch, the hospital has improved staffing levels, built skills among its workers and even installed a UNDP-supported solar water system that’s helping to save money and improve hygiene.
But despite these achievements, Khadra still faces criticism. Why? Because she’s a woman in a position of authority.
“Sometimes I hear men complaining behind my back,” she explains. “They want me to be removed so a man can take my place. They don’t like the idea of a woman leader!”
But Khadra’s going nowhere. In fact, she’s trying to encourage more women to join her.
Currently we have one female doctor and 14 female nurses,” she says. “We recruit graduates and train them for six months. But it’s a challenge to find qualified female doctors.”
Somalia has one of lowest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world, something that is not going to change if the country doesn’t make full use of the skills of half the potential workforce.
For that to happen, we have to overcome the kind of biases that keep women from stepping up.
Clearly we need more Khadras to encourage women to take on professional roles — and to lead by example.
UNDP’s work on policing is carried out with the support of the EU, Germany and the UK, while our work on justice is funded by the EU, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.
In Somaliland, we support women campaigning for their political rights as part of the UN Joint Programme on Local Governance (JPLG) (funded by Denmark, the EU, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the US) and through the UN Joint Programme on Women’s Political Participation, Leadership and Empowerment, (funded by the UK).
Our work to expand the use of solar panels in homes, businesses and institutions is funded by the EU, Italy and Sweden.