For more than two decades, sexual violence against women in Somalia has become more pervasive as the country has been torn by civil conflict and state collapse. However, after an alarming 80 percent increase in the number of confirmed cases of sexual violence from 2019 to 2020, the United Nations is calling for urgent action to tackle the rampant problem.
The UN attributes the increase in sexual assault of girls and women in Somalia to the continuing armed conflict and humanitarian crisis in the country. In 1991, sexual violence of Somali girls and women was used as a weapon of war by militias in response to the government’s collapse. Since then, Somalia has been mired in fighting between federal government forces and various militant groups, including the most well-known, Al Shabab. Most recently, clashes betweeen the country’s prime minister and president almost set off more fighting.
Throughout the decades, women and girls have been paying a high price for the relentless volatility, experts who follow the situation say.
According to Hawa Aden Mohamed, the founder and executive director of the Somali nonprofit group Galkayo Center for Peace and Development, besides rape and sexual abuse, girls and women have tragically been victims of defilement, incest and sexual molestation.
“We have witnessed cases where victims are killed by their assailants in a bid to hide evidence” in Somalia’s Puntland region, Aden Mohamed noted in an email with PassBlue. “Three such cases have been reported over the last 3 years.”
Political tensions between Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (“Farmajo”) and the Mogadishu-based Hawiye clan opposition group as well as land-based disputes and attacks by Al Shabab are responsible for the rising sexual violence. Intense flooding, locust attacks and fears associated with the pandemic have also left more than a million Somalis displaced, leading to sexual abuse of women and children who live in the temporary camps.
“Conflict-related sexual violence never occurs in a vacuum, but is always linked with wider security factors, many of which have been exacerbated by the advent of COVID-19 and its ensuing consequences, such as economic hardship, social tensions, impunity, and institutional weakness,” Pramila Patten, the UN special envoy for sexual violence in conflict, said in an email to PassBlue.
A General Assembly/Security Council report covering children and armed conflict from January to December 2020 found that 406 Somali children, 6 boys and 400 girls, were victims of sexual violence by government security forces as well as by armed groups.
The report found that more than 10 percent of incidents were instigated by national and regional military or police forces, with the rest tied to armed groups. Al Shabab was responsible for 60 cases, while almost 60 percent of incidents were committed by unidentified armed groups.
Working with local and international organizations to collect data after the incidents of gender-based violence, the UN identified that two-thirds of these accounts were rapes or attempted rapes and that there were more than 40 accounts of forced marriage and more than 30 of sexual harassment or assault.
The number of victims is likely much higher, however, as survivors of sexual violence struggle to report rape and assault because of lack of confidence in the Somali justice system, no access to health and justice services and stigma and fear associated with reporting sexual violence, the UN said. Aden Mohamed said that protection of survivors against reprisal attacks is not always guaranteed, leading victims not to publicly identify their abusers.
“I remember a case 3 years ago where police officers raided an IDP settlement, harassed residents and raped women,” Aden Mohamed said. “No proper investigations were conducted and the officers in question fled to a place known by the authorities but was never pursued. To date he has gone scot free.”
Since the early 2000s, Al Shabab has fought to create an Islamic state in Somalia. Now, more than 2.6 million Somalis have been displaced and live in more than 2,300 camps in urban and semi-urban areas due to military pressure by the group, floods and drought. With many of the camps overcrowded, the people have been subjected to violence, with women and girls most vulnerable. Perpetrators have preyed on girls, for example, as they leave the camps to take goats out for grazing or collect firewood in the grasslands that are often raided by assailants due to the area’s lack of shelter.
“For small girls, it happens in the hands of their caregivers at times,” Aden Mohamed said. “We also have instances where the girls have been abducted and raped in places outside their homes. Victims are always threatened with weapons such as guns and daggers against raising an alarm.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has also led to more sexual violence in Somalia because of a decrease in monitoring and reporting from lockdowns, quarantines and curfews as well as a drop in the prosecution of sexual violence cases. A 2021 report of Patten’s office explained that pandemic-related restrictions have also limited access to education and services for survivors.
“Protracted conflict, structural gender inequality and successive humanitarian crises further worsened by the pandemic are exposing Somali women and girls to heightened levels of conflict-related sexual violence,” Patten said. “Moreover, Al-Shabaab continues to use sexual violence, in particular forced and early marriage, in areas under its de facto control.”
When girls are assaulted, they often don’t have support systems. According to Aden Mohamed, due to anxiety or shame, families may decide to relocate their daughters.
“In worse case scenarios, if the girl has reached puberty then they are married off to their assailants,” she said. “It is in very few instances that the cases are taken to conventional courts and law applied. This is despite the fact that we have a sexual offenses law in place.”
When the victims get pregnant, they are either forced to marry their perpetrator or, if the assailant is unknown, they must raise the child alone, since abortion is a criminal offense. In Somalia, bearing a child alone is extremely frowned upon.
“Such girls may never get suitors in their lifetime and the children they bear will forever be considered outcasts and could even be killed,” Aden Mohamed said. “Over the past month we have come across 2 such cases involving 15 and 16 year old girls respectively. The father of one of the girls has vowed to kill the baby and the girl is in hiding. The other girl has yet to deliver but has been expelled from the family.”
Patten and Virginia Gamba, the UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, issued a joint press release last month, pushing for the Somali government to prevent and address sexual violence.
They asked the government to carry out its 2012 national action plans on preventing the killing and maiming of children and the recruitment of child soldiers and to adopt the Somalia-UN 2019 road map, outlining ways to prevent and respond to sexual violence against children.
Patten and Gamba also called for the Somali government to fast-track enactment of its 2017 Child Rights Bill and reintroduce and enact its 2018 Sexual Offenses Bill, which the UN argues will guarantee a better future for Somali children.
The representatives also asked the Somali government to implement the Joint Communiqué on the Prevention and Response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, signed in 2013, reinforcing a zero-tolerance sexual violence policy in the security sector — national military and police force.
“A law addressing the rights of children comprehensively and fully in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, if implemented adequately, can go a long way in protecting these girl victims of sexual violence,” Patten said.
She added: “It also sends a strong message that such violence will never be tolerated, and that Somalia takes seriously its international and regional commitments. Such a legal framework may help to encourage the filing of complaints and forms the basis for more robust investigations and prosecutions of sexual violence crimes.”
Nevertheless, messaging from the UN’s various high-profile leaders on the sexual abuse crisis in Somalia was missing a top voice recently, as it was not mentioned in a trip there in September by Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general. The main objective of her trip, a press release said, was a show of “solidarity with Somali women’s calls for full and equal participation in political life, and to express the support of the international community for timely, inclusive, peaceful and credible elections” — but no reference to the big jump in confirmed cases of sexual assault last year.
Catherine Morrison is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. She has a B.A. in social justice studies from McGill University in Montreal.