Somali women are the economic backbone in Somali society and in recent years have assumed more prevailing position as breadwinners of many families. They are the bond that holds families together. They are, however, marginalized and underrepresented in many economic, communal, political and leadership positions. While the barrier to empowerment for women in all areas such as employment, economic opportunities, education, health and participation in politics sturdily exist, the increased levels of violence against women in Somalia and their exclusion from important arenas where public policy is shaped and enacted to impact society as whole betoken both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality.
The fear of violence can prevent women from pursuing education, working or exercising their political rights and voice. Violence against women in Somalia does not only stem from gender inequality; it is a consequence of it. In many places, gender-based violence (GBV) is reinforced by exclusionary prejudicial social norms that undermine women and girl’s opportunities for education, stable income and to be a voice on the decision making table. Girls are often subject to parental restrictions including keeping them out of educational opportunities. Therefore, gender inequalities, compounded by the breakdown of social norms and State fragility due to the civil war, are attributed to be the root cause and enabling context of violence against women in Somalia.
Somali women’s cultural and social vulnerabilities hamper their progress and empowerment in Somalia. Their participation and contribution in important policy issues and decision-making processes is missing due to internalized and actual marginalization. Traditional elders play a huge role in having a say on women’s participation in many spheres of social life including politics. Although traditional elders harbor centuries old cultural ideology that had confined Somali women in the house and deprived them of opportunities in leadership roles and power spaces, yet society have placed so much power in the hands of the traditional elders who have become the de facto decision makers in all areas of politics. The lack of gender of equality, particularly the unacceptable marginalization of women and obstacles to their empowerment in Somalia, is at a critical juncture and should be an area of great consideration for policy makers, especially as the rape crises in the country has increased to staggering levels in recent months and years. The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women and girls worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Although the numbers are not Somalia specific, the worldwide figures astoundingly correspond to the worrying trend of sexual violence in Somalia.
The frequent reports of spiraling sexual assault and rape incidents reveal Somalia wide phenomenon that cuts across boundaries of age, socioeconomic status, education and region. Considering the cultural taboo of sexual violence in Somalia, women are reluctant to come forward and report sexual abuse in all forms. It is extremely difficult to collect sensitive information on violence against women when the victims are in fear of coming forward and there is an element of shame associated with a culture that reveres family honor and family name, which is often carried on the backs of women. This crisis which has been on the rise in recent years is taking its toll on women and girls, has an impact on the lives of many women beyond the direct victims of rape and sexual violence and creates a climate of fear, vulnerability and despair.
This policy paper will examine rape culture in the context of traditional norms, historic nature of rape, rape as a weapon of war and the manner in which rape has climaxed in recent years. The aim is to analyze and dissect how powerlessness, inequality, entrenched cultural perception of gender and women’s place in society and the breakdown of social norms due to the Somali state failure are contributing to the increase in the incidences of sexual violence against Somali women, leading to horrific cases of rape on Somali women and girls. The policy brief will inform the impact of intersectionality of patriarchy, objectification, gender stereotypes, and normalized rape culture all precipitating the onset of rape and subsequent lack of reporting and criminalization.
The History of Rape in Somalia
Historically in Somali pastoral society, rape was uncommon partly because of strong social and moral norms and the close protection of tribesmen of their womenfolk. However, Somali women encountered rape in the countryside, villages and occasionally in major cities although it was less frequent and gruesome than the forms of sexual violence women experience today. In the normal societal attitude, rape was perceived as a sinful aberrant behavior but one that women have to deal with as part of life. It was not something people wanted to discuss or prolong in community affairs longer than necessary. It was viewed as a horrific act that occurred and remedy was always sought quickly to cease any further discourse of it. In other words, Somali females were always subjugated, but although rape was not condoned outright, it was not treated as a serious crime and social ill as well.
Sexual violence was expounded as an act committed by young men who could not help themselves under the influence of Qat, some other forms of stress or even an uncontrollable male passion or sexual arousal that could not be averted. The victim was either married off to the rapist to safe face or the families exchanged compensation (money or camels) leaving the victim to endure the suffering in silence. The raped woman or girl would carry the stigma and indignity of rape with her, blaming herself for what had happened. It is an utter affront to the family honor to deal with the disgrace of a girl that was raped among them, forcing the family to sweep the matter under the carpet. When the perpetrator refused to marry the girl, then the victimized girl would remain unmarried and ostracized for being impure, on the bases that she partook in a sexual act with a man whom she was not married to. In most cases the girl was sent away to live with relatives in other parts of the country. When the rape resulted in pregnancy, every attempt was made to cover it up and the resulting child would be given a new identity. In every case, the victims withstand the worst of the condemnation and the scars and trauma of the sexual violence.
In the 1980’s there has been a surge of sexual violence against women in Somalia some of them allegedly perpetrated by gangs mostly the sons of the some renowned , rich and powerful men, bringing the first instances of gang rape with multiple perpetrators into the limelight. It was reported that this form of sexual violence was committed with intent and impunity. These young men horrified Mogadishu residents with their recklessness and detestable crime of raping girls randomly and with complete disregard for the law. Some of the perpetrators were never brought to justice, which reinforced the sense of dejection and injustice felt by many people.
During the height of the civil war, young rag tag militia took their revenge and anger on the bodies of women to avenge their warring enemy. Women were raped randomly including in sacred places such as Mosques, equally by people they knew like their neighbors and strangers. It was maniacally deliberate stratagem to humiliate the enemy through their women. This dark recent history has not been discussed openly as the matter of rape is still a taboo, an issue of discomfort and shrouded in silence. Somali women have suffered from sexual violence in refugee camps and even other parts of the world as refugees. Discussing the mounting rape pestilence openly, giving the high-level attention it deserves and resolving it through behavioral change and dispensation of justice remain difficult. It is always the victim and her family who endure the most blame. Until today, there were no ways to unveil the silence and ignominy around rape to give the due remedy for the victims.
The Pandemic Rise of Rape
Given the complexity of rape and its devastating consequence, the perceived sexual entitlement of Somali men and the cultural attitudes of Somali people towards rape, it has been understandably tricky to define sexual violence as a serious offence in Somalia that is reportable as a crime. In Somalia, much of sexual harassment offences fall within the ambit of behavior problems and is never treated as serious human right violation but a set of bad behaviors by men towards women. Within the male segment of Somali society, rape is culturally unacceptable, but it is not a cultural taboo to the extent of criminalization. There are federal and state criminal laws across different parts of Somalia to deal with sexual violence against women and girls, but they are not enforced to the full extent required and often rape cases are settled in out of court through customary laws (Xeer).
Majority of rape and other sexual offences remain unreported due to the stigma, humiliation, and loss of honor and self-guilty and lack of support. There are no specialized referral centers, no safeguarding and reporting processes and procedures in neither place nor standard codes of confidentiality and privacy in handling rape and sexual offences in the health facilities. Health facilities are not properly equipped to provide medical, psychological and emotional support to rape victims and witnesses.
There is a lack of capacity, both human, and technological resources to thoroughly investigate rape cases in Somalia. There is also a lack of formal and effective investigation, enforcement, fair trial and adjudication processes for sexual crimes at police stations and judicial institutions that are tasked to ensure due justice for the victims by bringing the perpetrators to justice.
There are no official figures available on sexual offenses in Somalia. Educational institutions, workplaces and local and neighborhood leaders are not required or encouraged to report on sexual offenses such as rape. It is ultimately the family of the victim who reports it to seek some sort of remedy. It takes months and is expensive to pursue justice for victims. In the end, the family is forced to drop the case due to pressure from traditional elders and the male members in the family. In most cases, rape victimization is hidden, and very little research has been undertaken to explore these gaps.
There is very little nationally representative data on all types of sexual offense in Somalia, and in some instances, there is no information at all regarding the experiences of particular categories of victims. It is entirely impossible to track the number of rapes being reported annually in different parts of the country due to lack of centralized national statistics and almost impossible to assess the scale of sexual and gender based crimes being committed due to secrecy, weak judicial system, corrupt and weak police and the lack of capacity of the police to handle rape cases of such nature and keep confidentiality intact. In a rare case of bravery, one woman, who was gang-raped in front of her son in Mogadishu in 2016, went and reported the rape despite fearing the stigma attached to it. Many victims suffer in silence.
Data gathered from different State and Non State actors in Puntland on Gender Based Violence (GBV) has shown that a comparison of incidents on rape reported by survivors during the first quarter of 2017 against the first quarter of 2018 has shown that, there were high incidents of GBV cases among the internally displaced people (IDP) which accounted for about 76% of all recorded cases whereas in the hosting community it was 14%. This data further shows that the high incidents of GBV in the IDPs is due to their vulnerability due to the lack of protection from such violent acts from both community and administrative structures coupled with the lack of case reporting, recording and management mechanisms.
The data further indicates physical assault as the leading GBV incident, accounting for 68.7%, followed by sexual assault 10.7%, while rape was reported at only 8.6% and others accounted for 12%.89% of these incidents were reported by adults against 11% reported by children.
From the same data, it was found that 67% of GBV incidents were reported by women and girls who were married, where 12% were single, 8% divorced or separated and only 2.8% widowed. This data further shows that during the second quarter of 2018, there was a slight decrease in the incidents reported by single women compared to the same period in 2017. In the same period, the highest incidents of GBV were recorded among women and girls who were married or cohabiting. Furthermore, spousal or intimate partner violence was found to be the main GBV case reported accounting for 73%, followed by child sexual abuse at only 11%.
Myths and Stereotypes
Complicating the implementation of laws and policies are myths and stereotypes about rape and victims of rape. The first myth propagates that rape is not a big issue in Somalia. The fact is that rape has become a genuine large-scale problem and daily occurrence in Somalia, which needs the attention of political and religious leaders, rule of law institutions, civil society organizations and the society as a whole. The second myth places the blame on the victims of sexual violence, mainly women and young girls, accusing them of attracting or encouraging sexual advances from men.
The fact is that sexual violence is a serious criminal act and grave human right violation against women and young girls that cannot be justified. The third myth attempts to justify the action of the perpetrators and to lessen the seriousness of the crime. These myths considerably worsen the plight of the victims of sexual offense, not least because the way rape is trivialized culturally and the manner in which harm of sexual victimization and blame rests with the victim.
The worse myth, circulated in these days, concoct a theory of a covert agenda by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to exaggerate sexual violence in Somalia by encouraging women and young girl to fabricate rape, which did not happen. Centuries old stereotypes of treating women as inferior, sex objects and easy prey for men predators diverts the attention and criminal responsibility from the perpetrators and further victimizes women and young girls.
The untrained professionals working in health centers and police departments whether male or female are often unsympathetic, judgmental, and impatient with the process. The victim is humiliated, doubted, and their plight exacerbated. These factors contribute to the low conviction rate of rape in Somalia. Arrests of the offenders result in very few criminal trials and most of these cases do not see a conviction for any crime related to rape.
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