Appointment of two Somali women in key ministerial posts must not mask the massive day to day persecution of women in Somalia

Published: 23 Nov 2012
By: Hala Alkarib

On 4th November 2012, the new Somali Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, announced the composition of his first cabinet with two women appointed as part of the 10 member cabinet. Of particular note, Fowsiyo Yusuf Hajji Aden was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs while Maryam Kassim was appointed as Minister of Social Development.  Fowsiyo’s appointment marks the first time in Somali history that a woman has been situated as head of the foreign ministry. The Somali Federal Parliament has approved the nominations of the new cabinet and both women are officially holding their positions as of mid November.

The Somali legislation demanding a 30% quota of women in parliament, the August 2012 elections saw women win 38 of the 275 Parliamentary seats available, the equivalent of 13.8%, far shorter than the minimum number required. Nonetheless, the appointment of these two women alone demonstrates a serious recognition from the newly elected Somali government towards the role of women particularly under the current circumstances of the country.

On the face of it, we should celebrate the elevation of women into senior political position, however, it is important to acknowledge the fact that across Africa, engaging women in high level political offices does not automatically translate into real commitments to women’s equality.  Although there are exceptions, across the continent, African governments have used the recruitment of women to high offices to project an impression of good governance, commitments to diversity and respect for both sexes. The harsh reality is that the elevation of women in politics has not automatically generated the same elevation of women in society and real and tangible changes in achieving gender equality on the ground.  This is not to undermine the brave decision taken by the newly elected Somali government and the courageous women who accepted the task while they are faced with a society that has been infused with a combination of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.

Since the early 1990’s, Somalia has been held hostage to brutal conflicts based on clan and religious militancy and was turned into the backyard of imported fundamentalism ideology, which is backed by foreign wealth and equipped with dogmatic conceptions of religious beliefs. There has been mass displacement, breakdown of social protection mechanisms, the proliferation of small arms alongside weak police and governance giving rise to impunity, and women have found themselves subject to gross violations of their human rights. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced/early marriage and domestic violence are still rife while women in Mogadishu IDP camps have found themselves increasingly subject to rape and sexual violence. Women street vendors have recently found themselves proxy targets for groups such as Al Shabaab in lieu of legitimate military ones, with vendors murdered for having sold tea to pro-government forces. According to the UN, around 20 incidents of sexual violence are reported each day, and between July – September 2012, the incidence of sexual violence quadrupled – a period which coincides with the transition to the formally elected Somali Federal Government.

Having said that, it is important to understand that the suffering of women in Somalia is backed by solid ideology which has had the upper hand for years over the Somali society and unless the newly elected Somali government addresses the ideological beliefs that justify the persecution of both men and women, change will remain problematic. The circles of religious militants in the Horn countries like Somalia and Sudan present their agendas in a religious idiom and project themselves as the only true mantle bearers of Islam.  What needs to be understood and put into perspective is that what these groups are presenting is not religion, but rather political movements working towards gaining political power at the community, national or international levels. These actors control people by silencing all dissenting voices, including other religious voices. They do so by blackmailing people into silence, spreading fear and persecution of men and women and by crushing dissent through predominantly legitimising practises of violence against women and capitalising on the traditional subordination of women in the Horn societies.

The rebuilding of Somalia requires a comprehensive approach towards peace and security beyond armed fighting. It is very important to secure awareness channels and accessible means of knowledge and to empower enlightened Islamic religion faith existence. This task of rebuilding the awareness inside new Somalia is as important as constructing schools and health centres. The Somali government and its partners should focus on emphasising attentive polices in supporting youth and commit to  enforce  laws that are  guided by international and regional mechanisms and seriously  seek to ensure women safety and human rights  in the country.

The author is the Regional Director of Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA)

Regions: North and Horn of Africa, Somalia
Type: IRRI Blog