SOMALIA: Somali women look to brighter future after decades of hardship

Monday, October 1, 2012
Eastern Africa
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The conflict that Somalia endured for more than 20 years took a heavy toll on the women of the country who now look to the new government for hope of better times ahead.

At the onset of civil war in 1991, the men of Somalia killed one another as clans vied for power, while women were left to pick up the pieces and support their families.

During and after the subsequent uprising of extremist movements such as al-Shabaab, women were the worst affected. Al-Shabaab, for instance, limited women's freedom of movement among many other restrictions, making it even harder for them to work, go to school and provide for their families.

Becoming breadwinners

Habiba Osman, a 46-year-old widow, said war has made her the key provider for the family after her husband was hit by mortar shelling during a clash between armed groups in Mogadishu. "I lost my husband during the war and I ended up with seven young fatherless children," she told Sabahi.

"Ever since my husband died seven years ago, my family has completely relied on me, even though I do not have a regular job to help feed my children," she said.

Today, Osman relies on money she earns washing clothes for well-off families and working as a porter, even though it requires immense physical strength and long hours away from her home. "I have to do this so I can feed my children, who are going hungry," she said.

Despite her toil, what she earns is not enough. "What I earn each day could be $1 or less, which is not enough for my children's and my basic needs," Osman said.

She also said she cannot pay her children's school fees. "I fear for my children's future, as they have no hope of going to school," she said.

Mariam Mohamed, 43, a mother of five, said the sustained war has meant lack of work for many men. She told Sabahi that before the war, her husband was the only breadwinner in the household and could find work to provide for the family. But the war changed that.

"When the war broke out, my husband became unemployed," she said. "I was forced to sell khat and tea to provide for my family's needs."

She said many Somali women carry a heavy burden and suffer from poverty and unemployment. "We hope the new government will work to improve the conditions of families and provide us with basic services, such as education, health and clean water."

Despite the important role women have played, young women fear their future may still be grim and without opportunities.

"The problem lies in the traditional culture of Somali society that is based on tribalism and controlled by men," said student Ayan Ibrahim.

Ibrahim, 18, told Sabahi that prevailing norms favour sending a male child to school rather than a female. "Somalis believe that girls' education is a waste of time and resources because they will be married off to other tribes, and therefore, their education will not generate any benefit for their own families," she said.

Moving forward

Aisha Hassan, vice president of the Somali Women's Association for Development (SWAD), said women are affected more by armed conflict in the country, even though they are not directly involved in it.

"Women are the majority of refugees and internally displaced individuals," she told Sabahi. She said that in response, local women's organisations have been providing professional training for women so they can avoid fleeing and have better lives at home.

In 2010, SWAD opened a school in Mogadishu's Hamar Jajab district to provide basic skills training and help women find jobs. "We teach them how to read and write in Somali, math, and other skills to help them earn a living." Some of the other courses available at the school include cooking and tailoring.

"In the last two years, more than 360 women of various ages have taken advantage of the programme," she said, adding that the school is completely free for women who attend.

The organisation is now planning to open a secondary school for girls to serve poor families. "We believe that an educated girl is [equivalent to] an entire community educated; we hope that the government and [international] institutions of education will help us in that endeavour," she said.

Faiza Mohamed, a women's rights activist with Voice of Somali Women for Peace, called on the new government to work towards improving the situation of women.

"We expect the new government to advance women's rights, to acknowledge their role and to include them in the political process," Mohamed told Sabahi. She stressed the importance of maintaining the 30% quota for women in the new government, which will be formed after the appointment of a new prime minister.

"Women are an important resource that should not be marginalised," she said, adding that marginalising women would have a profound effect since it would be difficult to build a united, viable and peaceful society if they are.

"Women have to be given the chance to build their country and be part of the political process," she said.