Some Steps Forward but More to Go: Women in Somalia’s Political Realm

by | Mar 24, 2014 | LCSC, War and Society | 0 comments

More than two decades after Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was thrown from power, the east African country is approaching the second anniversary of the Federal Government of Somalia. Prior to its establishment, the country struggled to maintain any form of central government. In 2004, the transitional federal government was created, initially governing from neighbouring Kenya. The President at the time, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, didn’t set foot in the capital Mogadishu until January of 2007 because while the government existed in name, the representatives had essentially no control over that part of the country. Since then, rapid progress has certainly been made. A parliament of 275 members, nominated by clan elders and ratified by a special committee, now convenes in Mogadishu. And while the country as a whole is finding its footing, women too are carving out a space for themselves in federal politics.

After several meetings, in 2011, the transitional government and international leaders established the Garowe Principles, outlining the design of parliament going forward. Part of the agreement was a thirty per cent quota of women in the lower house (previously the Transitional Federal Government had no quota and seven per cent female members). Ultimately quota was not reached – 38 women were given seats in parliament, making up fourteen per cent of parliamentarians. While obviously disappointing for many Somali women, it is interesting to note that Canada’s current parliament, which in 2011 set a record for the most women elected in the country’s history, has just 25 per cent women, less than the desired quota in Somalia. In the United States, only 18 per cent of representatives are women.

While the federal government fell largely short of its target quota for women, in other parts of the country there was an even more dismal showing for female MPs. In January, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland held an election (based on clan representation rather than a full democratic process) and only two of the 66 MPs selected for the Puntland House of Representatives were women. It was a disappointment for many, including the region’s former minister of women development and family affairs, Asha Gelle Diriye. Diriye has been working on women’s issues in Somalia for decades, having co-founded NGOs and chaired organizations with a focus on women, and spoken internationally about the role of women in Somalia. She told Al Jazeera, “Injustice has been done. Women’s positions have been grabbed and we blame the clan elders and not anyone else.”

On the federal level however, as well as bringing more Somali women into government, the country has seen women filling bigger roles. After the formation of this government, the prime minister appointed the country’s first female foreign minister, Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan. Speaking about her appointment, Adan was quoted stating that “It turns a new page for the political situation of our country.” According to Somalilandpress, Adan was educated at John Hopkins and American University in Paris, before helping establish the University of Hargeisa. She had an advantage over many women in that she came from Somaliland, a self-declared independent region of Somalia that has remained relatively stable over the past several decades. Adan’s origins also led to controversy, as in the past she had advocated for Somaliland independence and was now representing Somalia on the world stage.

In addition to her role as foreign minister, Adan also took on the position of deputy prime minister, making her the country’s highest ranking female politician until December when the prime minister was booted out of office on a no-confidence vote, and with him went most of his cabinet. Two female cabinet ministers were appointed under the new prime minister filling the posts of, predictably, Minister of Women and Human Rights, as well as Minister of Public Works and Reconstruction.

Apart from the failures and successes of getting more women involved in government, there have also been some attempts to have Somalia step up its legislative game when it comes to protecting women’s rights. As discussed in previous posts, many women suffer sexual abuse and restricted rights, and this government has not always helped the situation – a recent case saw a rape victim charged for insulting a government body. At the same time, there has been some acknowledgment of the need to protect women’s rights and foster a more secure environment.

Last summer the country drafted a national gender policy, with the assistance of the African Union. So far the policy remains only a draft as the recent political shuffle has slowed its progress. There has been further cooperation with the African Union on the subject however, including a December workshop focused on strengthening the country’s judicial capacity to deal with gender-based violence. As well, the Somalia New Deal Compact, created at a conference in Brussels in September, laid out a number of peace and state-building goals,. It also emphasized both women’s roles in achieving those goals and as beneficiaries of an improved political and justice system. With the deal came $2.4 billion dollars in funding provided by donors including the European Union and the United States.

The deal, however, has also provoked almost as much skepticism as optimism, as Somali women continue to highlight obstacles to their political and social success. As mentioned, elections in Somalia include the selection of MPs by clan elders and committee. Many in the country maintain a patriarchal mindset and this can hinder the opportunity for women to claim a place in politics. It can also deter women from wanting to participate. For instance, Shukria Dini, who was featured in a previous post, founded the Somali Women’s Study Centre, but chose not to get involved in the 2012 elections, saying, “At this time I didn’t want to be selected by clan men to represent Somalia. I hope that Somalia will reach a time, perhaps in the future, when all the institutions are fully established and then there will be an election process.”

 In December, at the Open Day on Women, Peace, and Security organized by the United Nations in Mogadishu, several civil society groups gathered to push for a greater role for women in achieving peace and stability. The women presented a statement to the Somali president, laying out the challenges they face, “including political marginalization, a justice system that does not address gender-based violence and a lack of respect for women’s human rights.” The Minister of Human Development at the time, Dr. Maryam Qasim, also spoke, urging for improved access and quality of education among young women, particularly to make them aware of their rights. It is an issue she has been pushing since she was part of the Transitional National Assembly in 2000. Many of the Somali women who have succeeded in politics, including Qasim and the aforementioned Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan, have left the country to pursue higher education.

Meanwhile in January, Human Rights Watch released a report citing the country’s failure to address human rights concerns. Leslie Lefkow, the organization’s deputy director for Africa, said, “There were lots of promises but in practice only backtracking on key commitments to tackle the culture of impunity and end rampant sexual violence.” It is also important to remember that hundreds of thousands fled the country as refugees in the decades of violence – 80 per cent of those being women and children. For many, even returning home to Somalia is a challenge; the difficulties of joining the political process are even greater.

It is clear security and opportunity for women have a far way to go in Somalia. Neither are easy to measure and progress will likely be slow. Several United Nations programs focusing on development in Somalia will wrap up and be reassessed next year, with any luck providing a good opportunity to objectively evaluate the situation. The New Deal is meant to cover until 2016 so another evaluation can take place then. But perhaps a more tangible benchmark will come two years from now, when Somalis are set to hold their next election and the representation of women in parliament may give an indication as to whether the country will continue to move forward in this area or remain static.

Andrea Hall graduated  from Wilfrid Laurier University with a BA in History and Global Studies and is currently radio producer for CBC News. Her blog series, ‘Women in War’, examines the challenges and opportunities facing women in contemporary Somalia.