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In Somalia, Spike in Gender-Based Attacks Compounds Plight of Displaced Women, Girls

Somali women are seen at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, Sept. 19, 2022. Women and girls in displaced communities in Somalia are experiencing a spike in gender-bases violence, according to U.N. data.
Somali women are seen at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, Sept. 19, 2022. Women and girls in displaced communities in Somalia are experiencing a spike in gender-bases violence, according to U.N. data.

Somali humanitarian workers and United Nations officials said women and girls in displaced camps are facing gender-based violence and rape amid the recurring droughts in the country.

Physical violence, intimate partner violence (IPV) and rape are the most common types of violence that women and girls are subjected to in displaced communities, according to data gathered by the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA.

In an interview with VOA Somali, UNFPA Country Representative Niyi Ojuolape said data gathered in 2021 shows that 52% of reported gender-based violence, or GBV, incidents are from physical assault, 11% are due to rape, 10% percent from other forms of sexual assault.

There are lesser incidents, including denial of resources (7%), psychological or emotional abuse (6%), and forced or early marriages, Ojuolape added.

UNFPA officials said GBV attacks have worsened in 2022 and during the first quarter of 2023.

Seventy-three percent of GBV incidents recorded in the last quarter of 2022 were reported by displaced persons; 19% survivors from the host communities, and 3% from refugees, mainly from Ethiopia, according to Bahsan Ahmed Said, assistant country representative for UNFPA and head of the Puntland semi-autonomous office.

“Fifty-eight percent of incidents in the last quarter of 2022 were IPV, 10% rape and 14% attempted rape,” Said noted.

There also was a 4% increase in violence in the last quarter compared to the 3rd quarter of 2022, Said added.

In the first quarter of 2023, UNFPA said displaced persons reported 54% of the GBV incidents recorded. Cases reported by survivors from host communities were 22%, an increase from the 19% in the fourth quarter of 2022; while GBV survivors from refugees stand at 12%, there was an increase from 3% in the fourth quarter of 2022. The refugees are originally from Ethiopia and Yemen.

UNFPA did not disclose actual numbers of GBV attacks in Somalia, saying it is bound by a data non-disclosure pact in the specific country-context of Somalia to protect the confidentiality and privacy of survivors.

During a visit to Somalia last month, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said droughts in Somalia led to the displacement of 1.4 million Somalis. Four out of five of the displaced are women and children, according to Guterres.

Ojuolape says the ongoing humanitarian crisis, past conflicts and displacement are all key drivers in GBV attacks.

“When people require humanitarian assistance in any such setting, GBV is estimated to be higher in such circumstances,” he said.

He added more than 90% of the abusers are male.

“This society has witnessed a very, very serious humanitarian situation in which many populations are affected. Their locations have been changed,” Ojuolape said, adding that “perpetrators of the violence” act at least in part “based on the physiological factors and the difficulties that they are facing.”

“If you are in a community where you don't have proper bathing facilities, where you have poor lighting, where you don't have toilet services, where privacy and shelter is reduced … where you have to use common latrines that others are using, where you don't have the facilities to take care of yourselves, when people are cramped together, it leads to an increase in gender-based violence,” Ojuolape said.

He said lack of food and sanitation facilities leaves individuals susceptible to blackmail and rape.

Feeling helpless

Bahsan Ahmed Said says what worries her is that some people sometimes think GBV attacks are propaganda, something that doesn't really exist, or something just talked about by women advocates and women groups.

“You don't see sometimes relevant action taken by relevant people. So, sometimes you feel helpless,” Said observed.

UNFPA said it has about 65 centers across Somalia and more than 80 local partners providing support and services addressing gender-based violence.

One partner is the Rural Education and Agricultural Development Organization (READO), an NGO that provides case management, health services, hygiene kits, counseling, legal services and psychosocial support to GBV survivors. It is active in southwestern Somalia.

Abdullahi Abdirahman Ali, who runs READO’s operations in Baidoa, said he feels aggrieved about attacks on vulnerable people displaced from rural areas by drought.

“It touches me very badly, but what I'm very proud about is to support this community,” he said. “Whoever is having this issue, I’m willing to support.”

Legislative efforts

Somaliland and Puntland have passed laws criminalizing rape, but similar proposed legislation by the federal government of Somalia has faced opposition, including from religious scholars.

In May of 2018, Somalia’s cabinet proposed legislation that would criminalize rape, but the measure stalled in the parliament. At the time, some lawmakers fiercely opposed it, alleging it was “against the Sharia.” One lawmaker described the bill as “dirty and filthy.”

The government has withdrawn the bill pending further review.

Sadia Yasin Samatar, as deputy speaker of the current parliament, is Somalia’s highest-ranking elected female politician. She supports legislation criminalizing rape and other sexual offenses, but she welcomes scholars “who have the country’s interest at heart” to intervene and make adjustments.

Samatar says she has been threatened and insulted for advocating the legislation.

“Many men who are claiming to be responsible people, claiming to be scholars who have names who live in countries where there is law and order have threatened me,” she said.

“But if I were scared of that, I would not be here. My opinion has not changed. I still believe rape is haram [forbidden], against the religion, against the human being, unjust to the poor women. The threats against me will not silence me.”

Government officials now say they are hopeful the current parliament finally will approve an updated bill.

Sadia Mohamed Nur directs the women and children’s department at the Ministry of Women and Human Rights.

“The Violence Against Women and Children’s Bill has special importance for the country,” she told VOA Somali.

She said the bill will protect the rights of women and children, criminalize abuses against women and children like rape, trafficking, child labor, and will hold perpetrators accountable.

“The ministry sat with religious scholars because a lot of things have been said about this bill and it has created noise and was misinterpreted,” she pointed out.

She said the ministry gathered the religious scholars and asked them to review the bill, adding that once submitted, the bill will go through the legislative process of the government.

UNFPA’s Said added that while she does not want to blame anyone for the failure to get legislation, she does want a “collective effort” and underscored that GBV must be seen as a community problem, not as a women problem.

“Because when women have a problem, it affects the whole community - the father will not be happy, the mother will not be happy,” she said. “We want to be seen as a family issue, as a community issue, as a national issue that needs everyone to talk about it, and everyone to take an action.”

Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle contributed to this report which originally aired on Women's Square, a new VOA Somali program.