27th November 2012 Nairobi, Kenya
Somalia: Breaking The Silence On Sexual Violence
Earlier this year, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague MP, announced a new initiative to prevent sexual violence against women. It aims to strengthen international efforts and coordination to prevent and respond to sexual violence, to erode the existing culture of impunity, to increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice and to support states to build their own capacity to deal with this appalling crime. It is, in effect, a call to action and it will form a key part of the UK’s Presidency of the G8 in 2013.
Tackling sexual violence in conflict is central to conflict prevention and peace-building. The Foreign Secretary himself has said that ‘where there is no justice, the seeds of future grievance and conflict are sown’; and, as a result, stability and development are held back. It is for this reason that the UK wants to rally international action on preventing sexual violence and drive this issue up the global agenda. Despite the significant strides made in the past few decades in tackling impunity for international crimes and human rights violations, the obstacles to addressing sexual violence remains significant. Put simply, more needs to be done.
Nowhere does such an initiative matter more than in Somalia. After decades of violence, and despite the recent political progress and the security gains that we are witnessing, Somalia is facing another – largely untold – challenge: the alarming increase in the rape and sexual abuse of women and girls.
There are many stories of Al Shabaab fighters seizing women and girls, forcing them into marriage, subjecting many to sexual slavery. Yet it is also worth noting that these claims are not solely confined to Al Shabaab – there are allegations of similar crimes being perpetrated by armed groups, militia, even national and foreign armed forces. Yet few of these allegations are ever brought to court; even fewer of the perpetrators ever brought to justice. Consequently, the survivors continue to suffer in silence: sexual violence has been ‘de-prioritised’; and as a result, women’s security – and that of the households and communities they build, support and protect – seen as less important. We must shatter this culture of impunity.
Thousands of Somali women have been subject to sexual violence; many of them in camps, and many of them children. It is clear more – much more – needs to be done. Access, however, remains one of the biggest constraints; it is often difficult for aid agencies and NGOs to access those women who most need assistance. But as Al Shabaab is pushed back in more areas, we have an opportunity to support and build on interventions aimed at preventing sexual violence and assisting the survivors.
Other requirements are also clear – we need to support efforts to build stronger law enforcement and legal support systems so that those women and children that have suffered these appalling crimes can seek justice; we need better information and correct targeting of resources; and we need stronger and more outspoken leadership from Somalia’s leaders – political, civic and religious – and the international community.
I am often told that Somalia has been carried on the backs of women for the past twenty years. Every Somali woman I have met in the past two years is testament to this claim; and everything I have seen clearly shows the role that women must play in Somalia’s future recovery and stability. The continued assault and abuse of women and girls needs to end; without this, Somalia’s recovery – a recovery that every Somali I meet in the street passionately wants – cannot really begin, let alone endure.
As the Foreign & Commonwealth Office marks 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, it’s time to break the silence.