“The Somali culture that I knew, a culture that treated women as sisters, mothers and grandmothers, was still alive and well.”
Stepping off the airplane onto Somali soil for the first time in my life, I did not know what to expect. Most of what I had heard about my homeland had been derived from news about violence and famine. I was pleasantly surprised when, at many points throughout my stay, I was treated in a way that these news sources had led me to believe would be impossible. Even before my flight took off, I was helped by three men ranging widely in age who, on seeing my concern at my journey to my homeland, began helping me. My conversations with these male Somali travelers offered my first hint that Somalia was nothing like I would expected it to be.
Landing in Somalia, I was overwhelmed by a barrage of strangers. They all spoke Somali and welcomed me back home. This is where I belonged, they told me. My interactions with the women in Somalia reminded me of a sisterhood that I had shared with many of the Somali diaspora abroad. It was that feeling, like magic, where we realized we were all amongst fellow Somalis. Although I had not yet decided what to expect, I was moved by the realization that Somalia and Somalis were ready to move forward and away from all that has divided us for a long time. The Somali culture that I knew, a culture that treated women as sisters, mothers and grandmothers, was still alive and well.
But just as it persists in all countries, including those of ‘the West’, patriarchal dominance remains a part of Somali politics and life in general. There is a shift occurring in Somali politics. As more women have been actively recruited into senior political positions, there are signs of progress towards gender equality in Somalia.
My conversations with these male Somali travelers offered my first hint that Somalia was nothing like I would expected it to be
For Somalia, this movement towards some semblance of gender equality has become an urgent necessity. It is vital to recognise that Somalia’s political, social and economic instability has had an outsized effect on Somali women. Increasing gender equality in government and using government policy to advance the status of women in Somalia is not simply a matter of increasing female representation in politics, but also about critically improving the livelihoods of women and girls in Somali society as a whole. By empowering the Somali woman, Somalia has the potential to make improvements to the broader economic, political and social sectors of society.
The current state of the Somali woman cannot be caricatured into a single stereotype. Women in Somalia play many different roles and occupy a diversity of statuses that often depend on the economic circumstances of their families. Women who come from families with economic means are usually well educated and tend to occupy highly skilled labour positions across the country. On the other hand, there are many women who are unable to go to school due to financial restrictions and obligations that put them into the work force early. Early marriages, which are often done as a means for survival rather than any allusions to ‘culture’, are a female-specific characteristic of poverty that also marks the lives of many Somali women.
Although the lack of women in Somali government is tied to the prevalent patriarchy, the disparities in levels of education between boys and girls does not help. For Somali girls, the glass ceiling blocking them from attaining a post-secondary education exacerbates the struggle of many women seeking to be included in the political decision-making process. Due to economic restraints, many girls are unable to attain educational credentials needed to fill government positions simply because their families cannot afford it. It is imperative to invest in initiatives that address the factors that specifically deter girls from going on to higher education. A society in which over half the population is hindered from making a meaningful socio-economic contribution is one that is destined to fail.
There is a shift occurring in Somali politics. As more women have been actively recruited into senior political positions, there are signs of progress towards gender equality in Somalia.
The woman question has become a central one for the Somali government in the quest to rebuild Somalia as a nation. In terms of female representation in government, Somalia still has a long way to go. Though there are some women in Somali politics, the number of women MPs who have been selected through Somalia’s unique clan selection process could be higher. There are currently less than a handful of female ministers in the federal government. In various state governments, the figures for female representation tend to reflect that of the federal government though there has been progress in northern Somalia.
By empowering the Somali woman, Somalia has the potential to make improvements to the broader economic, political and social sectors of society.
In the parts of Somalia that are controlled by extremist groups, female life is generally characterised by a gross exclusion from public life. Though the social, political and economic conditions of women living outside of these areas are much better, government policy should be aimed at supporting the full participation of women and girls in the political, economic, and social sectors. This must also be part of the view that sees the empowerment of women as an integral part of stabilization efforts in the country.
In programmes aimed towards conflict and disease prevention, and disaster relief and recovery efforts, the exclusion of women is especially detrimental. When women do not lead consultations or are not consulted about stabilization efforts that directly touch their’s and the lives of their children, those efforts are more likely to fail. One example that many women are familiar with relates to healthcare initiatives that are undertaken by NGOs without consulting the community or, notably, the women in those communities.
In some cases, facilities are repeatedly built to support women and infants but are left vacant due to understaffing and lack of supplies. This cycle continues until women are consulted about previous failures allowing actors to address the issue of sustainability before building infrastructure intended to help women and children in dire need of healthcare. In this regard, female empowerment through consultation and political inclusion is not simply a remedy for economic prosperity by preventing project failures but serves as an irreplaceable tool to achieving Somalia’s stabilization goals.
The current state of the Somali woman cannot be caricatured into a single stereotype.
In order to best support policies that enhance and promote gender parity in Somalia, policies and programmes centered on gender equality must be integrated into the strategic and budget planning. The formulation of education policies that break the post-secondary education glass ceiling for girls and women are a practical way to start. Only when girls and women are able to attain higher levels of education will the question of the supply of female candidates into the political system disappear; placing the focus more squarely on attaining gender parity at all levels of government.
India provides a good example of the possibilities for Somali women. India has become a global leader in the fight for gender parity in politics. In 1993, the country passed a set of constitutional amendments that led to the institution of a quota system that reserved 33% of elected seats for women at different levels of local governance. These constitutional amendments are in effect in rural and urban local governments, challenging the cultural norm of patriarchy that is especially dominant in rural communities. The quota system adopted by India also reserves a third of chairperson posts extending the policy beyond merely political institutions. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in women’s political participation in local governing bodies in India. In some states in India, the number of elected women now exceeds the 33% reserved requirement.
The institution of a similarly designed quota system in Somalia would go a long way to realizing Somalia’s quest to attain gender parity in politics. There is no question that Somalia has come a long way in achieving peace and stability after a lengthy and violent civil war. The best way to ensure that the country continues to move forward is to ensure that women’s voices are heard and that their presence is made visible.
B. Arte is a Somali national and an official in the Somali government.