For over two decades now, the tiny nation Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, has endured protracted militarized violence and statelessness. Various attempts have been made to setup transitional governments with the support of the international community, but these top-down state-building efforts have failed to establish the rule of law while the security and humanitarian situation has continuously deteriorated, jeopardizing the basic survival, security and livelihoods of Somali people.
The initial “goals” of the armed and clan-based opposition that toppled the military government of Siad Barre were to depose military dictatorship from power and ‘install' a new ‘democratic' form of governance in Somalia. I argue that the armed struggle led by various warlords and their militias has not only failed but also led to gender-based violence against men and women. In other words, the protracted militarized conflict has been a “gender war”, militarized violence that wreaked havoc on both genders' lives for two decades. For instance, young men hailing from various dominant clans were recruited by various warlords or volunteered to fight for their clans with the promise or hope that they would reap resources, including the property of men and women from the vanquished clans, and for political positions, power, and entitlements after the ‘struggle'. They were given the ammunition to inflict injustices on defenseless civilians including women. The warfare led to death, maiming, and destruction of property and loss of livelihoods of ‘enemy' clans. Women and girls were raped and people of opposing clans were displaced from specific geographic zones which they inhabited prior to the conflict.
Somali women were also deliberately targeted because of their gender, clan and marriage affiliations. Over the past two decades, their status has been worsening. They lack access to basic social services such as education, health, employment, livelihoods, security and state protection. In fact, their plight constitutes one of the worst cases among women living in stateless and militarized zones. They are not a homogeneous group differing in terms of ethnicity, class, age, geographic location and level of education. Despite these differences, women hailing from both the dominant and minority clans, urban and rural, have been equally affected by the collapse of the state and the gender-based violence, displacement and loss of livelihoods.
The current situation in Somalia does not appear to be promising.
The ongoing violence in South and Central Somalia between Islamic groups and Somali Transitional Federal Government's forces (backed by African Union peacekeepers) is directly and indirectly affecting Somali women. If such violence continues, there will be more deaths, destruction and a new displacement that will worsen the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and refugee influx in neighboring countries. As I write this piece, men, women and children are leaving in large numbers for the neighboring countries where they are joining other Somali refugees who were caught in protracted refugee situations, a condition affecting local scarce resources and security at both national and regional level.
If Somalia's political instability remains unaddressed in the coming years, it will continue to have profound effects on war-affected Somalis inside Somalia and the neighboring countries in the Horn region. Durable solutions to this situation will require political and economic interventions to address the root causes of the conflict with particular attention to gender inequality. The specific needs of both genders – men and women, in post-conflict Somalia must be placed at the centre of resolving this protracted conflict.
Despite the negative ramifications of state collapse and the protracted militarized violence on women, I would argue the outcomes of these tragic events have enabled Somali women to take up new roles and responsibilities. They have been, and are, playing positive roles in maintaining the basic survival of their families and communities. Through their new roles and responsibilities, Somali women have been able to build peace at the household and communal levels and rebuild their shattered communities. The new leadership roles include being the primary income-earners, community caregivers and leadership roles in the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Using bottom-up mobilization and activism, Somali women activists in places like Puntland and Somaliland have either renovated or built community institutions such as schools, wells, health clinics and implemented number of development activities that enhance the well-being of their targeted groups of female-headed households, youth and children. In a militarized environment, Somali women had no choice but to rely on their own efforts to save themselves, their families', communities' and overall their country.
The political disintegration and the breakdown of rule of law have both transformed them into actors. They adopted very creative and coping mechanisms that enabled them to maintain their families' survivals in a very challenging environment with no support. Some of those coping and creative surviving mechanisms adopted by women include: forming friendship networks and alliances with men and women from various clans to provide protection and facilitate the movement of women involved in income-generating activities. Women utilized their multiple relationships and connections to minimize their vulnerabilities and strengthen their capacities to cope with the aftermaths of state collapse and the on-going violence. Those friendship and alliances networks also enabled women not only to move beyond the restricted clan politics but also fulfill their new roles as the primary breadwinners for their families. In addition, Somali women also tended to the needs of their neighbors and members of their communities. Some of those needs include sharing scarce resources with the most vulnerable groups, empowering them and creating a new sense of solidarity and community in a war-torn context. Furthermore, women saw the need to establish grassroots organizations to tackle long-term developmental needs of their people and communities. There are also number of non-governmental organizations led by women in Puntland, Somaliland and South and Central of Somalia where women activists have been embarking on various life-saving activities including education, health, water and sanitation, income-generating activities in their communities. Through these initiatives, women activists in all these areas have been assisting the most vulnerable groups including internally displaced populations, widows, orphans and female-headed households. Due to the protracted statelessness and the militarized violence, Somali women gained skills and experiences which made it possible for them to cope with the situation; these new skills and experiences will also enable them to contribute to the post-conflict reconstruction processes.
Women experiences through state collapse, militarized violence, adapting survival mechanisms, bottom-up approaches / strategies, inclusive and participatory peace-building, bridge-building, are all assets that need to be harnessed for the peace-building and recovery efforts in Somalia, and also need to receive the appropriate support and benefits during rebuilding processes. Their contributions to the basic survival of their families and to the most vulnerable members of their communities will remain pertinent to the present and future times, and it is paramount that these efforts receive the right attention and support.
Somalia and its people need support from the international community.
All attempts must be made to ensure that such support puts Somali women into consideration as the glue holding their war-ravaged nation. Such international support can be used as an effective means to avert gender marginalization through reversing gender discrimination. In other words, the international community needs to ensure that its financial and technical support not only reaches Somali women as recipients but also builds and bolsters their capacities and their organizations (women's organizations) all over Somalia. Somali diaspora also do have role to play by participating in the reconstruction of their former homelands and helping to transform the gender relations in Somalia. Networks and linkages between women activists and Somali diaspora communities are already in place and only need to be expanded to sustain the activities of women activists back in Somalia and the engagement of members of Somali diaspora in their homeland. International bodies can play a role to facilitate the connection and networking between the two groups through forums, research and fund-raising events.
Finally, Somali women remain very under-researched group. There is need for more research to learn more about the important role they play for their families, communities, peace-building, recovery and overall in their war-ravaged nation. To overcome the scarcity of literature on their experiences and efforts, there is need to establish think tanks and research institutes that focus on gender issues inside Somalia and in the Somali Diaspora. Research institutes in the global North can then collaborate with Somali researchers inside and outside of Somalia to carry out specific research that explores gender issues in Somalia and in the Somali Diaspora. It is only through a joint knowledge production process, that policy-makers and the future post-conflict leadership in Somalia will be able to recognize the fundamental importance of Somali women as important peace and development actors.