The following is a guest post by Faiza Abdirashid. Faiza is a 2012 Chevening Scholar from Somalia studying for an MSc in Public Policy at the University of Bristol.

A recent meeting organised by three UK government departments (DFID, FCO and home Office) on 29rd April focussed on the challenges facing Somali women. It was a great success, and highlighted the necessity for addressing issues of gender-based violence in Somali society.

Faiza Abdirashid

The event involved the Somali diaspora and showed the UK Government’s commitment to improving the situation of Somali women. The focus of the discussions was three-fold: improving women’s social, economic and political situation; a discussion of issues involving sexual violence; and a discussion of gender-based violence, such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

In identifying the key challenges impacting on the role of women in Somali society combined with strategic ways of tackling them, the event represented an inspiring and progressive step towards creating post-war stability in Somalia.

The meeting comes at the right time when, with all forms of gender-based violence still a major and widespread problem, there is both the need and the opportunity to create genuine change. Somalia’s newly found security and political stability presents significant potential for change, as does the high level of political commitment on the part of the current government to reducing and ending gender-based violence.

As Justine Greening (UK Development Secretary) pointed out, the existence of the recently formed Federal Government means that Somalia is now “in a position to make genuine progress on empowering women and tackling violence against women.”

However, at present, despite so many recent political improvements, many Somali women and girls are still the victims of gender-based violence. The prevalence of women suffering female genital mutilation is as high as 98% in some areas and there are persistently high rates of sexual violence and other gender-based violence.

Furthermore, in terms of profound long term damage, many women and girls who suffered sexual violence during the decades of civil war and inter-clan conflicts still experience varying degrees of trauma in terms of physical, psychological, social and economic effects. In addition, many are ostracised by their communities and families due to the stigma attached to rape.

Many factors exacerbate this situation: the silence that tends to surround sexual violence due to stigma and the fear of retaliation; the lack of immediate protection for women and the lack of justice within the legal system are the most obvious factors. However, the vulnerability associated with poverty and displacement caused by economic insecurity and drought also contributes to the continuity of this violence.

As a result, women and girls living in IDP camps are most severely affected by sexual violence as there is a constant threat from perpetrators in armed groups, disturbed individuals and even government officials, all of whom use sexual violence as a weapon of power.

The fear of retaliation if sexual crimes are reported, and the almost inevitable impunity of the perpetrators, means that most victims do not report rape and sexual violence. Often the perpetrators are from the government forces, AMISOM or other armed militias, such as Al-Shabaab, and virtually all of these cases go unreported as reprisals are almost inevitable.

On the occasions when such crimes are reported, victims are liable to be subjected to physical assault and sexual violence, and sometimes jailed or tortured. Another consequence is ending up in the hands of their attackers. To date, few perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Of those that have, some reports suggest that over 80% were not prosecuted. There are also known to be many cases that are solved in traditional ways by what is known as “clan insurance processes”. The aggressors in such cases are generally the luckiest ones.

Often the women are forced to marry their rapists in order to preserve the family honour, which tragically illustrates the severity and depth of violence against Somali women and the denial of their human rights.

Through understanding the degree of impact that sexual violence has had in Somalia, it becomes clear that women’s rights need to be central to any strategy aimed at building peace and stability for the Somali people as a whole. To achieve a sustainable peace in an environment that violates the rights of its own women and girls is not only unjust but it is also impracticable.

The lack of justice inherent in this is more likely to lead to recurrent conflict in the future, hence undermining all efforts towards peace, stability and future development of the country. The contributions that women make to stability within a community are well known, and it creates a huge loss of resources for the future of the community when their human rights are so undermined by gender-based violence.

With this in mind, it is crucial that we use the current government’s commitment as an opportunity for both civil society and the international community to engage in mobilising the necessary resources to end all forms of gender-based violence against Somali women, particularly sexual violence.

It is also essential that the Somali government adopt international conventions such as CEDAW (Convention for Eliminating all forms of Discrimination Against Women), CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) and the recently developed Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, which was endorsed by the G8 last month.

More integrated strategies will make it possible for the Somali government to provide social and legal support for women in particularly vulnerable situations.  The lack of such support is yet another example of the loss of human rights inevitably resulting from decades of conflict.

Establishing a national commission and a high level taskforce to track and respond to these issues is a first step to restoring women’s human rights. The development and adoption of national legislation and the provision of social services, including health care services needed by survivors of gender-based violence, will provide a major contribution to the foundations of a more stable and secure society within Somalia.

Through this, the government can create an environment where women are able to exercise their basic human rights and survivors of sexual violence may feel confident to speak out about their experiences with dignity.

It is therefore crucial to make strategies combating sexual violence an integral part of Somalia’s peace and stability operations in order to achieve a sustainable post-conflict peace and reconstruction process.

For this, it is essential to ensure that through national and international support, the Federal Government is capable of instituting the necessary strategies to guarantee an end to the widespread sexual violence, where victims no longer fear retaliation if they report sexual violence and that the perpetrators face justice with zero impunity.

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