The role of Somali women in peacebuilding and decision making
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It is commonly said in Somalia that “while women can build peace only men can make it”. One reason for this is that a woman’s affiliations with her father’s clan, and her mother’s, husband’s, children’s and son-in-law’s clans, mean that a woman’s clan loyalty is perceived as unpredictable. Therefore, they therefore are not included as clan delegates in negotiations and decision-making forums that can affect the fortunes of the clan.
During the Somali civil war many women found themselves at the center of conflicts fought between their sons, husbands and other male relatives.
Despite some basic similarities, the status of Somali women differs across social groups and to a certain extent across geographic areas. Some distinctions, such as those between rural and urban or nomadic and agricultural, are important enough to merit attention here. Others fall into the domain of stereotypical preconception between different clans in different parts of the country and principally subjective.
Nomadic women make a decisive contribution to the economy in the form of labor and though the products of goats and sheep, some of which they own. Women are the architects of the nomad society; they both build and own the nomadic hut – and important element of the wedding ritual and the marriage and one of the many activities that women traditionally accomplish together. In the semi-arid territories of the central and northern Somalia, nomadic women also work together to collect wood and fetch water, prepare food, and feed the children. Although much of this work is heavy, it teaches endurance and self-reliance, and it forges strong ties of sisterhood and loyalty.
In the more settled, agricultural areas of the country women have farming duties, working in the fields with other members of their extended family and tending herds of cattle and small livestock. Opportunities to meet other women and to share work, time, and ideas with them are thus plentiful. In urban areas, the women’s status can vary considerably. While opportunities for economic and social mobility undoubtedly exist, many urban women find their responsibilities restricted to the domestic sphere, where the possibility for self-development and interaction with other women is limited.
In Somali society it is men, specifically the elders, who traditionally have the means to make peace through dialogue and mediation. But although women are typically excluded from decision-making forums where peace accords are negotiated, their position within the clan system gives them the ability to bridge clan divisions and to act as a first channel for dialogue between parties in conflict.
By the same token a woman’s multiple clan affiliations can give her a structural role as a peace builder, enabling her to act as a conduit for dialogue between warring parties and to exert pressure on them to keep talking.
Somali women have been effective in influencing elders and others to intervene in conflict and have mobilized resources to finance peace meetings and support demobilization. While men typically focus on achieving a political settlement, with the assumption that peace will ensue, women’s vision of peace exceeds this and includes sustainable livelihoods, education, truth and reconciliation.
Somali women have also led the way in mobilizing civil society engagement in peace work, although few of their initiatives for peace have been documented. Many women peace activists have found the struggle for peace inextricably linked to that for women’s rights.
When mobilized, women play an important influencing role in local peace processes, especially if they have wealth, are related to clan elders or come from a respected family. In Puntland, in response to one conflict, elderly women from several clans approached the leaders and demanded a cessation of hostilities. Their message was simple: ‘we have had enough displacement in our lifetime and at this age we can’t tolerate it anymore’. This compelled clan elders and leaders to intervene and ensure the conflict was peacefully resolved.
Somali women are expected to submit to men and to fulfill their duties as daughters, wives and mothers. Some traditional opinions prevail within the community like “women cannot represent the clan”_ and “_a man should be nominated in a certain position rather than a woman even if she is capable of doing it_”. Or even the notion that women are not allowed to speak up in the presence of men. Likewise, men believe that a woman cannot be a superior to a man and she cannot give orders.
Women generally do not socialize with men in public places. Somali women served in military units and played sports before the civil war. Opportunities for secondary and higher education had increased for women before the collapse of the central government in 1990.
With this , women also lost the legal status and equal rights that had been afforded them. While women have actively engaged in peacebuilding, the gendered nature of clan-based politics means that women are typically excluded from full participation in peace talks. For the most part, male delegates dictate the shape and form of negotiations. Women remain in the conference venue as observers and as pressure groups ensuring that any challenges that would cause a break-up are promptly dealt with.
One of the powerful lobbying strategies women use is poetry. In the 1998, conference held in Garowe the capital ciy of Puntland, Anab Hassan, frustrated by what she called ‘male power-grabbing and selfishness’, recited a poem that left many men in tears. Reportedly, after hearing the poem the elders agreed to allocate women seats in the administration.
Oh men, why don’t you realize the difficult circumstances that
We are now facing?
Or keep the land and we will emigrate.
When the rhythm for rebuilding slows down, we rally and mobilize
For the purpose. We are always beside men, never behind them.
We are at the forefront of peace and reconciliation,
We are ready with what it takes to resurrect good government.
But you men ignore our advice and inspirations,
You suffocate our intellect, so it never sees daylight…
Be warned, we are now awakening after a deep sleep and passivity.
Puntland state is located in northeastern part of the country and it has been relatively stable since 1st August 1998. The state covers a geographical area of about 212510 square kilometers or roughly one-third of Somalia’s total size. As of 2006, the population of Puntland is estimated at 3.9 million where 52% are nomads, 70% of the population is below the age of thirty. It has 1600 km of coastline which is almost half of the country’s coastline which is 3333km.
The state has had three different administrations ever since its establishment with three different presidents elected by the parliament.
General Mohamud Musse Hersi (aka Adde Musse), the second Puntland president officially passed a decree announcing that “women should hold 30% of government seats”. Although this declaration from the presidential office was meant to potentially engage women in decision making it is not fully implemented yet. This is due to culture barriers, lack of probable women candidates and also men’s rivalry in positions.
The Puntland government has allocated a quota of 8% for women parliamentarians. However, in this current administration which has was elected in January 2009 only two out of 66 seats were taken by women candidates. Furthermore, the Puntland administration has 54 cabinet members where only four are female candidates.
Asha Gelle Dirrie is the minister of women development and family affairs (MOWDAFA) she is the only female minister in the government.
Though women mostly doesn’t hold high ranking positions within the government but there are women who are deputies, directors or even coordinators in different ministries, its estimated to be around 10% of women in the government. There are also women who have been trained as police officers and other sectors of the law enforcement but most of them do not perform their duties because of the culture barriers whereby people feel awkward if they see them dressed in the police uniforms or standing along the road acting like traffic woman, because most people believe that its men’s work and not for women.
On the other hand, nomination of the city council is led by the clan elders and they always nominate men. Also there are women councilors whose clan nominated them or those who came as what is known as the sixth clan (or the women clan). Though there are some women councilors who work magnificently and even better than men and one example is Farhia Hersi who really worked hard and everyone takes her as an example when talking about women’s achievements, but there are some women who does not participate effectively in discussions or decision makings due to the cultural barriers and gender bias practiced within the community especially those in the remote districts.
Between July and September 2009, I was part of a research team doing some assessments on how councilors in different districts work and one of the things my mind can’t let go is that while we were doing interviews and focus group discussions, there was this one focus group discussion we held in one of the remote districts whereby mostly men were the ones who discussed the issues on the table deeply while women councilors sit tightly and didn’t say anything.
When we asked them why they are not participating in the discussion or bringing their ideas and suggestions which are very valuable, there was this woman, she was in her mid-forties, she said in low shying voice “men have already said whatever we could have said and we agree with them”.
One of the reasons why Somali women do not participate in politics is the culture which prevented them from partaking in politics and they were supposed to remain at home and perform their duties as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. Because of women’s multiple clan affiliations makes her clan loyalty unpredictable. This gives her opportunity to participate in peacebuilding and reconciliations but when it comes to holding positions it makes difficult for a women to be elected in a certain position.
After the civil war Somali people are divided in to clans. It is difficult for a woman to be appointed in to a certain position belonging to a certain clan. Also the old traditional belief that “a woman cannot represent the clan” is still there which prevents her from full participation.
In Somalia, civil society organizations led by women have achieved much in the past two decades. They have helped to disempower the warlords, reduced the significance of clan affiliation, ensured civil society representation which is essential to any peace and reconciliation process, and made progress on the participation of women in politics. But Somali women still face constraints in breaking through gender-based inequalities and cultural and practical barriers to equal political participation.
Lack of knowledge is also another reason for women’s absence in politics as they are not aware of what is their rights and at what level they are allowed to hold.
I have a dream and one day I am sure I will see my dream came true. I always dreamed to see women participating in all aspects of life. I would love to see many girls attending schools because once they are educated they know what their rights are and at what level they can hold in governmental positions.
When women are mobilized and empowered women they can do wonders, they can be good leaders because mostly women are more honest than men and more dedicated to whatever they intend to do, men should accept that women are their other half, they should respect them and always stand beside them.