When I say I work in Somalia, I get a mixed reaction. Many people’s impressions of Somalia are shaped only by its representation in Hollywood films as a hideaway for pirates and extremists. While colleagues admit my work must be fascinating, friends and family often worry about my safety or say they are certain it’s a lost cause. The few who have experienced Somalia, and have had the privilege to make Somali friends, are envious. And they should be. After two decades of civil war and instability, Somalia’s reputation is passing its sell-by date.
For Somali women, the public perception of the country and the hardship they endure remains sadly justified. Despite increased stability supported by increased openness to the international community, the retreat of Al-Shabaab and the effective confronting of piracy, Somalia is still one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.
It is no surprise that Somalia ranks in the bottom 5 of the Gender Equality Index and the Human Development Index. 1 in 16 women die in childbirth, and 10 percent die before the end of their reproductive years. Female genital mutilation is nearly universal and is a powerful reminder of the threat of violence women face. Sexual violence is prevalent in Somalia and many assaults are perpetrated by men in uniform.
A combination of harmful social norms and coping strategies in the face of poverty leads to widespread child marriage. Although data are hard to come by, the best available show 45 percent of women currently aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18.
For the lives of Somali women to improve, they must have more control over their own lives and input into the decisions that affect them. However, Somali women’s social, political and economic marginalisation is reinforced by their exclusion from decision-making. As of January 2014, women held only 9.6 percent of parliamentary seats at national and regional levels.But for Somali women, too, the times are changing.
During these 16 Days of Activism, the UK has highlighted its efforts to confront violence against women head on, to change social norms and ending female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage. For these efforts to succeed, the voices of women must be heard and heeded. Participation in decision-making is not just important to change laws and improve access to services; women in visible political and social positions can change social norms and raise opportunities for women’s greater involvement and influence, in public and private life.
At the recent High Level Partnership Forum on Somalia in Copenhagen, the Federal Government, donor governments, the UN and other international partners came together to track Somalia’s progress toward stability and development. This was a key moment for the voices of Somali women to be heard nationally and echoed internationally.
The first day of the Forum started with a meeting on Increasing Women’s Political Participation co-hosted by the Somali Minister for Women, Khadija Diriye, and the UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, Baroness Northover. The meeting provided a platform for long time Somali women activists, including Shukria Dini, founder of the Somali Women’s Studies Centre. Representatives of the many governments attended, including the President of Somalia, Hasan Sheikh Mohamud.
In this meeting, the UK and Somalia together called for specific and effective measures to be put in place to guarantee the representation of women in all levels of decision-making. This is an achievable goal and the positive reaction from those in attendance is heartening. Over the course of the two-day Forum, participants regularly reiterated the call for greater representation of women.
Leading up to Somali elections in 2016, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to support the Somali Government in responding to this call and to deliver on its commitment. This is a chance to truly change the perception of Somalia and greatly improve the lives of Somali women. With greater political and social voice, Somali women will be able to draw on their rich history of activism and seek the kind of change they need and deserve. As the 16 Days of Activism draw to a close, I look forward to continuing our work to ensure Somali women gain the benefit of the increasingly stability and improving conditions in Somalia.