In a village in her home region of Jubaland, Somalia, Sagal Bihi waited nervously to address the traditional male leaders of her clan in a town hall to promote her candidacy for member of Parliament in last year’s elections. Traditional male elders of her clan had left their homes to come and listen to her, and Bihi recognized that she’d already overcome the biggest obstacle to her candidacy.
“The elders carry the weight and are the ones whose presence is a message in itself,” the 35-year-old says. “I know most of my [female] colleagues did not even dare to call for a town hall meeting. They couldn’t do it because they knew that people would tell them, ‘Go home. You have no place here.’”
Years of conflict in Somalia have led to rising extremism, and the position of women in the nation is increasingly tenuous. With the absence of a strong central government, Somalia relies on leadership from traditional male elders representing the various clans. Experts say the clan system inherently discourages women’s empowerment and keeps them oppressed. “Clans cannot exist without subordination of female interests to the patrilineal interests,” says Texas A&M University professor Valerie Hudson, an expert in women’s peace and security. They are poor communities that are “totally unstable, completely corrupt, [with] no sense of meritocracy at all. This is a terrible form of government for human beings.”
Hudson and other experts argue that the exclusion of women from peacemaking and nation-building leads to instability and violence, like in Yemen and Iraq. In 2000, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, calling for women’s full participation in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction. Women would place a higher emphasis on social welfare, says Sanam Anderlini, founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), an organization dedicated to promoting women’s rights, peace and human security in countries affected by conflict, and would address the marginalization pushing young people to join extremist groups like al-Shabab and the Islamic State.
Unless Somalia commits to choosing a state system over a clan system and promoting women to meaningful positions where they can shape policy and promote legislation securing the protection and advancement of women and girls, the multinational efforts to build Somalia into a stable nation are sure to fail.
Many women who won seats had their candidacy fees … paid for by their clans. This puts the candidates at the mercy of the male elders.
Over the past two years, Somalia has taken steps to promote female inclusion in historically conservative, all-male governments. Just months before the 2017 presidential election, after years of campaigning by women’s activists and the international community, for example, the government agreed to a minimum quota. Clans were instructed to reserve 30 percent of their allotted seats to female candidates in Parliament, a move widely seen as a progressive milestone.
But Somali women say they are still largely excluded from holding meaningful roles in government where they can make an impact on Somalia’s future. Only 24 percent of the seats went to women in last year’s federal elections, despite the mandate. “The day after [the agreement], the transitional government was like, ‘Oh, you know, we didn’t really mean this,’” says Anderlini. The 30 percent ended up translating into more like 38 women, she says. “I used to joke they just changed the percentage sign and turned it into an eight.”
Many women who won seats had their candidacy fees, which are reduced by 50 percent because women are not primary breadwinners in Somalia, paid for by their clans. This puts the candidates at the mercy of the male elders and precludes them from fighting for women’s issues against the wishes of the clan, says Faiza Mohamed, of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Somalia.
Women in Parliament are largely ignored and marginalized. They are given “traditionally female” roles overseeing women, children and family affairs instead of critical positions in policy, security and economic development. Some women who make it into government have been pushed out, a former minister told me, and replaced with men from their clans. “Being a woman in that environment, sometimes people expect less from you,” Bihi says. “You are just a decoration. You’re the topping. You’re not the real thing.”
The 30 percent quota was intended to help women start gathering the numbers they need to have an impact. But experts warn that the quotas are not enough. Women need to be empowered at the household level to fight against institutional sexism and patriarchy. In Rwanda, where more than half the Parliament is women, the country still has failed to dismantle many mechanisms of women’s empowerment at the household level, including marriage law, bride price, dowry, divorce law, property rights, inheritance rights and normalization of domestic violence.
“Despite the fact that over a majority of Rwandan parliamentarians are women, until you dismantle those mechanisms of household control, the situation for women will not change,” Hudson explains. “And the laws and the customs regarding female subordination in Somalia are some of the worst” in the world.
Which is sad, because women are essential for ensuring peace in Somalia. “Women are the backbone. And they are really those who are behind the peace in Somalia,” says Asha Gelle Dirie, the first minister of women in Puntland, Somalia, who was instrumental to negotiating women’s increased involvement in politics. “But unfortunately, when the negotiations started, no women were invited. What we need is 50 percent women and 50 percent men.”
Neha Wadekar is an East Africa-based contributing reporter with the Fuller Project. Reporting was supported by the Women, War & Peace Broadcast series and the Fuller Project.
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