DISCUSSION: Combating Rape in Somalia: Women at a Crossroads

PRI's The World
Sunday, February 3, 2013 - 19:00
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Initiative Type: 
Online Dialogues & Blogs

Activists in Somalia are demanding that their new government do more to investigate rape charges, especially those directed at men in uniform.

Anchor Marco Werman talks with three women who work at a rape crisis center in Mogadishu, and finds out why the entry of women into Somalia's armed forces might be helping to combat rape.

We hear first from Lisa Shannon the co-founder of Sister Somalia, a sexual violence crisis center in Mogadishu.

Then we talk with Somali activist Fartun Abdisalan Adan, and her daughter Ilwad Elman who both work at the women's center in the Somali capital.

They discuss Iman Elman's decision to join Somalia's armed forces.

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. News out of Somalia has been more positive recently than it's been for decades. The nation on the horn of Africa is trying to overcome its reputation as a failed state. In September, a new leader took over, and he's been working to create the country's first functioning central government since 1991. Residents of Mogadishu say the capital's main streets are often chockablock with shoppers now, as Somalis who've been living abroad have returned to open stores and businesses. And Somali women have been especially encouraged by a new constitution that promises equality for women, and by a government pledging to do more to address problems like rape. But women's rights activists still see reasons for concern. Lisa Shannon is the co-founder of Sister Somalia, a sexual violence crisis center in Mogadishu that she created with Somali activist Fartun Abdisalan Adan. Shannon has just returned from the Somali capital where she saw some worrying developments.

Lisa Shannon: The week before I arrived, a woman who had talked to the press about a gang rape at the hands of government soldiers was arrested, and then the journalist who they believed interviewed her was arrested, and they were both held for about a week until she recanted the story. That seemed to really change the climate. I mean, women at the center had been feeling like they could be more open. Obviously everyone was really optimistic, and the tone just changed really quickly. I mean, even when I was there we saw an awful lot of harassment of women's advocates who were believed to have helped the victim. So it's very mixed messages and kind of chilling. We're not sure what it means.

Werman: Let's establish though that things are indeed changing, outside of women's issues, in Somalia. I mean, more Somalis are coming back. You were just telling me that there are now four flights a day to Mogadishu, as opposed to four flights a week. And you actually made it into the center of Mogadishu on this trip that you just got back from.

Shannon: Yeah, a year and a half ago, I got about four blocks away from the African Union compound. This time I spent several hours driving around the center of Mogadishu, got out of the car, walked onto the beach where kids were playing soccer. You know, it's a city that's just piles of rubble, but at the same time you can see that they're using some of the rubble to rebuild walls, there's new construction, so it's very hopeful right now.

Werman: So in this transition, is the idea of a rape crisis or a sexual violence crisis center perceived as kind of a very Western notion to the citizens of Mogadishu?

Shannon: You know, that's an interesting question. I certainly would have imagined it would be, but the ideas of women's rights seem to really be spreading. The women who come to the center themselves are actually going back out into their camps and serving as kind of word-of-mouth contacts or counselors for people who may have gone through some things like this. So you would not expect Mogadishu or Somalia to be a new hotbed of the women's movement, but that seems to be happening.

Werman: What are the rules for being a woman there these days? Do you have to behave a certain way?

Shannon: Absolutely. Women wear full head dress and they're covered from head to toe. I mean, that was particularly true with Shabaab but it continues on. You would never go out without your head covered.

Werman: Shabaab, of course, the militants in Somalia.

Shannon: Right. Obviously, there have traditionally been issues around women speaking about rape at all, and if they do, there has been this kind of brutal, systemic victim-blaming that happens, so women can be jailed, they can be killed. So there's that set of issues. I mean, they can run businesses, move about, but they have not traditionally been invited to the table in decision-making roles.

Werman: What is just the risk of going to the authorities and saying so-and-so raped me? Are there reprisals?

Shannon: Often they will arrest the victim, saying that it's a false accusation, that she's lying. In Shabaab territory, a woman could be stoned to death for making an accusation like that against Shabaab militants, so it's very risky. And even if she does report it, there's not a solid justice system in place to pursue the complaint, even if they weren't attacking her for showing up and reporting it.

Werman: And I gather Fartun, the woman with whom you founded Sister Somalia, has been threatened.

Shannon: Fartun's husband was killed for his human rights work, and she talks about basically every day feeling grateful she's still alive. When I was there, I saw someone had written on the back of her SUV in the dust, “I want to kill you.” So there's this sense of kind of measured risk for them, that it may be risky but it's worth it. People are hungry for this, you know. Like for instance, when I was leaving, I was going through the airport. I was stopped, and they opened my bags. They thought I was a journalist, and for me this was actually a pretty scary moment because I had published something on The New York Times website the night before criticizing the government. I thought, oh, no. They opened my bags and then they asked, “Are you a journalist?” And I say no, I mention Fartun, I mention the center, and the woman's eyes light up. She throws her fist in the air and says, “Women's rights!” and waves me right through.

Werman: Wow. That's impressive.

Shannon: So that's a shift.

Werman: That was Lisa Shannon, co-founder of Sister Somalia, a sexual violence crisis center in Mogadishu. Shannon created the center with Somali activist Fartun Abdisalan Adan. We called Fartun to ask her about those threats on her life.

Adan: The work we are doing, a lot of people, they're not happy with it. A lot of people, they don't want to talk about what happened to them, because all the stigma involved as the rape victims.

Werman: Fartun's daughter Ilwad Elman also works at the Sister Somalia center in Mogadishu. She says Somalia's new government needs to begin investigating allegations of abuse, especially charges of rape perpetrated by soldiers and other authorities.

Elman: We feel that the government needs to accept that this happens and respond to it instead of denying it. What we feel right now is a very dangerous turn, is a government that's more interested in protecting itself and its new image as opposed to its civilians.

Werman: Some of the change happening in Somalia, though, could help Ilwad and Fartun's cause. Take Fartun's other daughter, 22-year-old Iman. She had also been working at the rape crisis center, but then she made a bold move. She joined the Somali armed forces. Her decision hasn't been easy for Fartun to cope with.

Adan: I am always worried about her. Going with the soldiers and having a gun. it worries me a lot. I ask her many times she shouldn't do this, and she always said, “I like this, and I can change. It feels like I'm changing something.”

Werman: Iman is one of a just a handful of female soldiers in Somalia. She dresses in battle fatigues and full head scarf. Ilwad says she's proud of her younger sister.

Elman: It's very uplifting for a lot of young girls that see her in that position. People are usually taken aback, or they're shocked.

Adan: Even the wearing the clothes.

Elman: Yeah, most women in Somalia, they wear skirts or dresses, and she's in her uniform gear, wearing pants and she demands respect.

Werman: And Iman's decision to join the military could help the rape crisis center. Sister Ilwad says she's seen some evidence of that already.

Shannon: Since she has been in her position, we have had better connections, better communications with the government, especially the army. And she takes it upon herself to really follow up with many of the cases that she hears that involve men in government uniforms and women being raped and to see how she can actually investigate it.

Werman: And it's not just her family saying that. Activist Lisa Shannon thinks Iman's decision to become a soldier has itself brought some change.

Shannon: You know, that move did shock a lot of people. I think she's one of four women who are in the Somali armed forces. And she got a lot of looks and a lot of pushback until she actually ended up on the front lines behaving in a way that was quite brave and won a lot of respect. And in fact, even in the armed forces, she said there was a situation where a woman was reporting a rape, and she came across a lot of men kind of grilling this girl about it, and she suggested, hey, why don't we just get a written statement, and take it from there. So her presence there is sort of shifting things as well.

Werman: That was author and activist Lisa Shannon, who recently returned from Mogadishu. We also heard from Ilwad Elman and her mother, Fartun Abdisalan Adan, who both work at a sexual violence crisis center in the Somali capital. We have photos of the women, including one of Iman Elman in full combat gear and head scarf, at TheWorld.org.