Things are looking up for women’s rights and representation in Somalia - at least on paper.
At a February conference in Garowe, the administrative capital of Puntland, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) convened the second in a string of meetings facilitated by the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) to work towards the completion of, and transition to, a new constitution by 20 August 2012. Currently women have 12 percent representation in government, but it was agreed that in the new federal parliament of Somalia they will have at least 30 percent.
Chantal Ekambi, gender officer at UNPOS, indicated there was movement on women's rights in Somalia. Following the decision to grant them 30 percent representation in parliament, she said many had sought advice from UNPOS to understand their rights and request support. “They're willing to be really engaged in the political process knowing that the context of Mogadishu is a very hard environment,” she said.
Meanwhile, some see this year’s Women's Day celebrations as a further indication that things are changing.
Abdi Hosh, TFG minister for constitution, described this year's Women's Day (8 March) as historic. "It was the first such event I ever observed in Somalia; it was the first such event held at the venue in 21 years, as it was being used by IDPs [internally displaced persons], and it was significant for me because I fought for 30 percent membership for women in the next parliament and [it] succeeded at the Garowe constitutional conference last month."
The head of the Somali Women's Federation, Asha Omar, coordinated International Women's Day celebrations in Mogadishu. She returned to Somalia two years ago after 21 years in Sweden. “We are the peace-lords, we're working hard”, she said. “It's the men who left their work - they're just fighting between themselves. Everyone wants to be a president. I tell them, be a president in your own home."
Omar says decades of male migration and drought have promoted women to non-traditional roles; many now are at the head of their families. "Women have no tribes, they have families", she explained, adding that Somali women lose their ties to the clan structure on marriage.
However, on women running for parliamentary office, Omar warned that because the clan structure has no tradition of female leadership, it will be a case of the men choosing for them, perpetuating the inequality.
A steep hill to climb
There are few statistics, but rape in Somalia is common and women will not go to the police for fear of being talked about. There is no specific legislation to protect from domestic violence, and no law prohibiting spousal rape. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting is around 95 percent, even though Somali authorities made efforts to eradicate it as early as 1972. Tradition restricts access to bank loans and land ownership rights, and Sharia law obliges women to wear the veil.
A source at the Ministry for Information described the move towards 30 percent representation as a “gesture”. He called for action so they can compete equally in all sectors, economic empowerment such as loans for women, mandatory education for girls, a legal framework to promote equal rights and “a sensible reinterpretation” of social, traditional and religious norms.
“There is no strong women’s movement compared to other countries. This is due to cultural, traditional norms; [the] religious factor which undermines the status of women in their society; high illiteracy rates; poverty; and insecurity. Based on the above, the women's movements are not strong enough to handle the challenges facing women in their country, and to fight for their rights and freedom”, he said.
Many of the women entering politics in Mogadishu now are either from the diaspora, or have spent time in Nairobi - like Omar. “Women have to own the process”, said Ekambi.
Amal is an 18-year-old international middle-distance runner training for London 2012 whose dream, like many fellow competitors, is to win medals for her country. What makes Amal different is that for the last three years she has dodged gunfire and persecution in rebel-held Mogadishu to train. "Society doesn't understand about sport for girls. They cannot train everywhere, they are teased. But they know why they're doing it," said her coach, Ahmed Ali Abikar.
Mealyuun Moha is the chair of the Baidoa region women's federation. For the last three years, she has been telling her husband that she has to attend hospital in Mogadishu in order to escape Al-Shabab controlled Baidoa and attend seminars on women's rights in the capital. "I didn't want to endanger him", she said, adding that she had to cover her face on the journey.
Another prominent member of the women's federation left her home in Kismayo three years ago in order to pursue her work in women's rights. She has not seen her children since - if she returns to Kismayo, she says Al-Shabaab will kill her.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions