No serious discussion on the advancement of women’s rights in the 21st century can ignore the plight of Somali women. The unfortunate reality of a failed State coupled with the rise of extremist religious ideology have deprived women in Somalia of their fundamental human rights: the right to protection from harm, the right to an education, the right to good health, the right to a basic standard of living, and the right to freedom.
In the last five years the key perpetrators have been the rise of conservative elements such as the Al-Shabab militia who have pursued a campaign of discrimination against Somali women. The United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW 1979), defines discrimination against women as “...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.
According to several scholars in the field, the systematic discrimination faced by Somali women can be attributed to resurgence of conservatism and the lack of state capacity to protect and empower its citizens.
Unfortunately, Somali women often see their rights disappear between the different legal systems of Islamic and customary law and in matters concerning ‘marriage, custody of children and inheritance, customary law is extremely prevalent’. The use of Xeer (traditional law) pre-dates Islamic law and has been transmitted orally throughout history, and is profoundly affected by and has undergone evolution with respect to recent social and political change.
This is particularly significant because in Somali society, group rights are identified as immutable and therefore outside the actions of any single individual. Thus, the rights of the society are more important than the rights of any woman. Unfortunately, within this context, religious doctrine (and especially, certain interpretations of it) is presented as transcending any man made secular rights - exemplified in the Foreword and Preamble to the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (1981).
Furthermore, despite the fact that there are several multilateral documents (Beijing Declaration on Platform for Action 1995; United Nations Resolution 1325 (2000); United Nations General Assembly “Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century” (A/S-23/10/Rev.1) aimed at the protection and development of women in conflict prone regions, factors such as patriarchal traditions, gender-discriminatory state structures, lack of incentives on the part of conflicting parties to commit to peace processes, and the unavailability of national and international resources to implement agreements have created wide spread impunity for human rights abuses.
Abdi illuminates why capacity to implement pro-women’s right policy in Somalia is near impossible; firstly, most of South Somalia is controlled by misogynist radical Islamists, and secondly, Somalia is the ultimate failed state - having consecutively been ranked number one on Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace’s “Failed State Index”. Somalia has been ravaged by continues civil war since the ousting of Dictator Siad Barre in 1991. More importantly, the fall of Barre regime left a power vacuum which allowed radical groups to rise in the midst of the nation’s search for stability.