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Victimizing rape victims in Somalia: Time to eliminate the cultural taboo of gender based violence

Posted by African Press International on April 7, 2013

  • By Farhia Ali Abdi

“Women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including in some cases as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group”(UN resolution 1820)

The media headline around the world read, “Somalia has sentenced a woman, allegedly raped by government soldiers, to jail, along with a journalist who spoke to her about the attack”.  This case ignited global outrage and divided Somalis regarding the definition of rape and the cultural interpretation of sexual assault.

Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalia has been subject to widespread violence and instability.  A Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was succeeded by a new federal government in September, 2012. Somali security forces, with the assistance of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and others, have liberated the capital city of Mogadishu and other key cities in southern and central Somalia from administration by al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist movement.  However, the new federal government’s reach and ability to provide services remain limited.

Rape Culture in today’s Somali Society.

Rape culture is a concept used to describe a society in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.  Unfortunately, rape has become epidemic in Somali according to those who work closely with people throughout the country. And while these kinds of assaults, are not new in the country, particularly for those who live in the refugee camps (internally displaced persons), the repercussions from the trial cited above has imparted significant additional damage to the combat against gender based sexual assaults.

In January, 2013 a 27-year-old Somali woman, claimed to have been gang-raped by government soldiers. The victim was later arrested according to the report from Somalia by police and taken to the Central Investigations Department (C.I.D.) where she was interrogated and forced to retract her allegations against the security forces. The rape victim and the reporter who interviewed her were accused of fabricating false claim against government soldiers and were said to have been profiting from the allegations. Both the reporter and the victim were later convicted and sentenced to one year in prison at the time. The implication of this conviction goes beyond the accused. The imprisonment of a victim of rape sends the wrong message to women everywhere in Somalia most of whom are already intimidated by the untamed gangs including soldiers. This verdict has condoned violence against women. It reinforces and further entrenches old and outdated attitudes and actions towards women in current Somali society.  There is a culture of denial, silence and stigma in Somalia when it comes to rape. It is a taboo subject and people are already afraid to talk about it.  The Somali Human Development report describes how “traditional Somali society is conditioned not to openly discuss issues such as domestic violence and rape, which further hampers women’s access to justice”(SHDR).

In this context, the price of rape for Somali women is severe and has multifaceted implications for individuals and their families. Rape or any sexual assaults is cultural taboo in Somali society, it leads to shame and in the most serious of cases, the ostracism of family members. In some cases, communities continue to fuel the stigma, stereotyping and discrimination against the victims who are already traumatized and isolated.

The director of Somalia’s rape victim’s crisis center in Mogadishu has reported that:

“Younger girls, often 16 or 17, are usually afraid to tell their parents they have been raped and may now be pregnant, for fear they will not be believed, especially by their fathers; so they run away and stay at our center.  These younger victims are the ones who are most reluctant to report they were raped because they are also worried about their future and whether being a victim of rape will lessen their chances for marriage.”

There are a lot of displaced refugees within Somalia, about 1, 373,080 in Mogadishu alone according to the UNHCRs 2013 Country Operations Report.  Women and children in these camps are extremely neglected, living in unprotected and congested settlements; where women and girls are particularly exposed to sexual and gender-based violence.  In a recent interview, Zainab Hawa  Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, she recounted  how the “U.N. had evidence that 1700 Somali women had been raped in camps for internally displaced people in the Mogadishu area between January and November last year, with the majority of perpetrators reportedly wearing uniforms.”  It is safe to assume the incidents within camps in other parts of the country, may be just as high, but was not reported.

Current Somali Justice System:

Somalia developed its justice system after independence in 1960 by unifying legislation and judicial structure drawn from colonial and Islamic legal customs and traditions. It was reformed in 1969 after the military coup, based on scientific socialism and included additional reforms implemented through the military regime in control. The judiciary, however, collapsed after the civil war and there is no uniform system of criminal justice administration in Somalia today. Enforcement of criminal laws, therefore, is haphazard to nonexistent.  There are regional and locally established courts operating throughout Somalia under a combination of Somali customary and Islamic Shari’a law; some of which lack legitimacy in the eyes of the wider population. The Somali Human Development Report (2012) indicates that in Somalia the “traditional laws, used in lieu of a state judiciary, are highly discriminatory against women” (HDR).

In a recent interview (Feb, 2013) with Al Jazeera, the president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, said that while his government “is the only government that is dedicated to improving the lives of women in Somalia; he will not directly interfere with the ongoing court case. He added, “I don’t have the right to interfere in the judiciary system… my interference with the judiciary system, will never help the rule of law in Somalia,”

Similar remarks from the Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office, Mahamoud Abdulle, were quoted in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian on March 07, 2013 regarding the journalist arrested with the rape victim “it’s not our (government’s), decision and we can’t do a lot about it…We have an independent judiciary that is in its infancy, and we cannot interfere with that…”It’s important to be careful about making allegations against the police. They have done a very good job in large areas of society. Of course there might be a few bad apples in the barrel.”

While the President and his government’s representative’s remarks about non-interference with “the rule of law” are admirable, it doesn’t reflect the reality of a country with an inadequate judiciary system. The President cannot take the high road, while the justice system in place in the country, is so disjointed.

These are not remarks that a government should be making at the same time that its citizens are being terrorized and victimized by the same people who were entrusted to protect them. These are serious matters that do not require masking, but rather require a hard look at the root of the problem. Now, is the time to construct a sustainable justice system in Somalia, run by a qualified, trained and unbiased judiciary and guided by structured legislation. As the Prime Minister’s secretary pointed out, the judiciary system is “in its infancy” and it does require direction. The federal government needs to outline a comprehensive strategy to increase the coordination of a gender-based violence prevention and response system.

Currently, hundreds of millions of aid dollars pour through big agencies that provide food, water, and health services to the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps and to the country in general., Somalia’s dramatically escalating sexual violence, however, is being largely ignored both by the international community and the government of Somalia. The situation of women in Somalia today calls for an urgent moral stand. Women, who are the majority of the victims in Somalia, must receive more attention and more protection.

Women in Somalia, as in all countries around the world, should have the right to be free from the gender-based violence that results in physical, sexual and psychological harm. Society needs to condemn violence against women, find justice for victims; and protect and empower all women. Women in Somalia live with domestic violence, constant fear of rape, lack of health care and basic needs and cultural inferiority. It is time for society to stand up and speak up for these women. Somali needs to reject the fear of violence and sexual assaults that is pervasive in the country today.

  • The way forward:

In many countries where a rape crisis exists, the stigma can be overwhelming, making the gathering of information about sexual violence all the more difficult. As mentioned earlier, speaking out publicly about rape or sexual violence can leave a woman both shunned and abandoned by her community. While the problem of gender-based violence appears monumental in nature, there are ways to address it:

  •  
  • The government has a responsibility to bring about legislation that criminalize violence and sexual assault against women
  • The government has a responsibility to take the lead on educating and raising awareness about the growing issue of sexual violence
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  • Somalia needs a strong justice system that will build people’s confidence in the State’s institutions and systems and that will seek to remove the impunity pervasive in Somalia today.
  • The government needs to establish the authority required to administer criminal-justice and put in place qualified, reliable, and unbiased judiciary bodies that can deal with the nation’s affairs.
  • The government must protect women and treat women’s rights as a shared responsibility, recognising women as rightful Somali citizens who can live without fear of sexual and physical assault.    
  • The government must set policies that include strategies to combat and prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence; which encourage local and national ownership of the problem and its solution.
  • There must be proper institutions in place that can respond to the victim’s needs and rehabilitation, and which include protection from re-victimization.
  • Finally, the government needs to strengthen its research and data collection capacity, which can then guide and enhance gender-based violence prevention and response efforts; and can best shape programs to address the issue of gender-based violence.

 

End.

 

 

 

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