The Somali government plans to move displaced people to more secure camps in the capital Mogadishu and set up military courts to tackle “rampant” rape, a senior United Nations official said Thursday.
The U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, said the government must also build confidence in the judicial system so that more women come forward to report rape.
Somalia is emerging from two decades of war. Hopes have been raised by the U.N.-sponsored, August 2012 election of a new government, which has said it will prioritise security and the rule of law.
“A lot of sexual violence is taking place in most of the camps in Mogadishu,” Bangura said after a two-day visit to the city. “But because of the culture in Somalia, a lot of people are very much afraid to report it.”
In February, a court sentenced a woman who reported being raped by security forces to one year in prison for insulting the government and making false accusations. A journalist who interviewed her about the rape received the same sentence, but both were freed following an international outcry.
“Most important of all is trust in the system,” Bangura said. “The people need to feel protected, need to be able to see that they get justice.”
U.N. statistics show that some 1,700 women were raped in Somalia in the first 11 months of 2012. Bangura said that this figure is a gross underestimate as sexual violence is rarely reported, and it does not include areas controlled by the al Qaeda-linked rebel group al Shabaab.
Government and African Union forces pushed al Shabaab out of Mogadishu in 2011, but it continues to control much of the southern countryside.
Bangura gave the example of a four-year-old girl that she met who was raped in one of Mogadishu's 513 displaced people's camps. Her mother did not report the attack to the authorities.
“She's afraid that they will say she is lying,” said Bangura. “She doesn't trust any of the existing structures.”
Instead, the four-year-old's illiterate mother turned to the traditional justice system, run by elders, and was given $150 in compensation.
Bangura described her experience of Mogadishu - where she met several rape survivors, from young children to a 75-year-old blind woman - as traumatic and difficult.
She met a woman with a two-week-old baby who had recently escaped from security forces that had held her captive for eight years.
“They were abusing her almost every night,” Bangura said. “They took it in turn to rape her continuously.”
The woman became pregnant and gave birth twice. Both babies died.
She finally escaped while pregnant for a third time and went into labour on the street. A passerby found her and brought her to a rescue centre.
The most vulnerable women are those living in Mogadishu's makeshift displaced camps, which host some 200,000 people who have fled fighting and hunger. Three-quarters of camp residents are female, and mostly mothers living alone with their children, Bangura said.
So-called 'gatekeepers' - who are militias with links to powerful landowners and politicians - control the camps. They often siphon off aid for the displaced.
“In the middle of the night, when there is no electricity, you have all these people who have guns, living within these camps, living with these women… sexually abusing them,” she said.
“The women are held hostage. They are literally hostage to gatekeepers and militia.”
The government plans to consolidate the 200-odd makeshift camps currently controlled by gatekeepers into three new sites, which will offer better protection to women, Bangura said.
“The camps are not under the direct supervision of the government of Somalia, so they don't have control over who goes in who comes out. That is the biggest problem,” she said.
The relocation will take place in coordination with humanitarian agencies.
Bangura is hopeful that proposed military courts will help tackle the problem. She said they have been a success in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is also endemic.
“We will support them in setting up the military courts so that military people who are accused of committing sexual violence will be investigated immediately. They will be tried and they will be prosecuted,” she said.
Bangura, a former foreign minister in Sierra Leone, plans to raise the issue of sexual violence in Somalia at the G8 ministerial summit in London on April 10, and at a donor conference on Somalia on May 7.