GAROWE, SOMALIA - A new forensic lab launched in central Somalia could transform how the Puntland state government handles cases of rape and gender-based violence, and possibly create a model for the rest of the country to follow.
The Puntland Forensic Center, funded by the Swedish government and supported by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), was opened September 6. It brings advanced DNA testing capabilities to a country still lacking in paved roads and reliable electricity.
The lab opened less than a year after Puntland enacted its Sexual Offenses Act, the first law in Somalia to criminalize sexual offenses and impose harsh penalties, including jail time, fines and public lashing, on the perpetrators.
The lab was designed to provide critical scientific evidence to the police and officials investigating and prosecuting crimes under this new law.
"As we were helping [the Puntland government] develop that piece of legislation, the question came of, 'How do we enforce that legislation when it is finally approved?'" said Nikolai Botev, UNFPA's Somalia representative.
"This is when the realization came that there are actually no forensic facilities within Somalia."
Culture of silence
Rape and sexual assault are pervasive in Somalia, where decades of conflict have created persistent instability and crippled the institutions meant to uphold the law.
Thirty-year-old Fatima was collecting firewood outside her family's home in a camp for displaced people in Puntland when she was attacked by three strangers. The men gang-raped her so violently that it caused Fatima, who was pregnant, to miscarry.
"After I came home, I started to bleed the next night. After three to four days, I lost my four-month-old baby," Fatima told VOA in an interview at a women's health clinic in Garowe.
Like many women in this conservative country, Fatima preferred to stay silent rather than endure the stigma of her community. The blame and shame survivors face deters many women from reporting rapes and assaults, creating a culture of silence.
"I was shy and said to myself, 'Don't tell your story to anyone because it is shameful,'" Fatima said. She was dressed in a full black niqab that revealed nothing but her eyes through a small slit.
Although statistics on the numbers of sexual crimes are largely unavailable, Somalia has been ranked as one of the worst countries to be a woman, and stories like Fatima's are alarmingly common.
UNFPA says reports of rape and sexual assault have increased this year, after a devastating drought pushed women like Fatima into displacement camps where they become even more vulnerable.
"We're seeing a significant increase of sexual violence, particularly targeting internally displaced people," Botev said. "The whole idea of the forensic center was born out of a bigger idea of how to address gender-based violence, sexual violence in the context of Somalia."
A broken system
Somalia's government, even at the state level, has yet to recover from decades of war. Many Somali women do not bother to report crimes because they lack faith that the system can, or wants to, help them get justice.
Officer Kis Shamis Kabdi Bile stands out in her bright orange sneakers, blue hijab and mirrored sunglasses. As the only woman in Garowe's Criminal Investigation Division, she handles every case of rape and gender-based violence because, she says, most male officers don't even consider them to be crimes.
"There are some police officers who say rape is not a big deal and consider it a minor thing," she told VOA in an interview at the police station. "They say that it is nothing new."
Bile hasn't been paid in over a year, and conducts her investigations on foot, as the police department doesn't have a car. She says the police need resources and specialized training in how to handle sexual crimes.
Many of Bile's cases are taken over by community elders, who settle disputes through Somalia's traditional herr system. Often the rapist's family pays a fine of camels or goats to the survivor's family, or the survivors are forced to marry their attackers.
It's frustrating, Bile said. "As you are in the middle of the case, those elders will come and say, 'We are going to negotiate before you finish the case.'"
During our interview, a young girl, no older than 15, came to plead for Bile's help. The male police officer assigned to her rape case was insisting she lacked the evidence to go to court, she said, and was encouraging her to resolve her case through the community elders. Bile called the officer in for a strong scolding, and then took over the case.
There are promising signs that Puntland's efforts are already helping more rape survivors to hold their attackers accountable.
Data from Puntland's attorney general shows that of the 108 rapes reported in Puntland in 2016, only 14, or 12 percent, resulted in convictions. Almost a third were dropped due to lack of evidence.
But since the Sexual Offenses Act was implemented this year, the conviction rate has risen to 27 percent, while the number of cases thrown out for insufficient evidence has dropped to 21 percent.
The trend is encouraging to local politicians, who hope the forensic laboratory will build upon the law's early success by providing authorities with stronger evidence in a shorter time so they can investigate and prosecute more cases that will stand up in a court of law.
"We used to send DNA from here to Nairobi or from here to South Africa," said Salah Habib Haaji Hama, Puntland's Minister of Justice and Religious Affairs. "So those restraints now are easy. We can manage this and get answers within a timely period. Within hours, within minutes, when we used to have days, sometimes months, to receive those."
An important component to the lab's success is providing education, both to the survivors and the wider community, about how DNA testing works and why it's so important.
"There's a limited time that they have to report or the results of the lab will not be successful. So we will try to educate them," said Maryan Ahmed Ali, Puntland's Minister of Women. "What is the time limit? What do they have to do? Do they have to take a shower? Do they have to change or wash their clothes?"
Understanding the implications of DNA testing could deter potential attackers from committing crimes for fear of being caught. It could also be a game changer for women like Fatima, who said she didn't report the crime because she didn't know her attackers' names.
"Who am I going to accuse? I can only accuse a person I know. I can't catch someone who I only saw in the jungle. I can barely remember the faces," she said.
A multitude of challenges, including poor infrastructure, potential security threats and lack of qualified technicians, could impede the lab's success, said UNFPA's Botev. Somalia lacks advanced universities and hospitals, so the technicians overseeing the facility all studied abroad. They hope to make the lab a training ground for aspiring Somali scientists.
But the greater hope is that more successful convictions will foster increased confidence in Puntland's new system, and encourage more women to report. Ultimately, Ali said, this will help reduce the social stigma and break the culture of silence surrounding rape and sexual assault.
"There will not be a stigma. There will not be a discussion about who did this, who did the crime, who did the rape. So it's a big encouragement," Ali said.