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Somali Women as change agents

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 the clan of her father, mother, husband, children and son-in-law, mean that a woman’s clan loyalty is perceived as unpredictable. Therefore, they are not included as clan delegates in negotiations and decision making forums that can affect the fortunes of the clan.

In Somali society men and specifically elders traditionally have the means to make peace through dialogue and mediation. 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. Few of women’s initiatives for peace have been documented as nobody took them seriously until agreements had been reached. 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 that 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 such as “women cannot represent the clan” and “a man should be nominated in a certain position rather than a woman even if she is educated and capable of doing it”. And 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 use the power of poetry to counter attitudes as above. At a conference held in Garowe – the capital of Puntland in the 1998, Anab Hassan, frustrated by what she called ‘male power grabbing and selfishness’, recited a poem that left many men in tears.

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.

After hearing the poem elders apparently agreed to allocate women seats in the administration at any level they are capable of holding. The situation is improving with time and women have started holding positions in the government.

Puntland, the state where I live and work has enabled women's participation in governance. Located in the northeastern part of the country, 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 of which 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 of 3333km.

Puntland state has had three different administrations ever since its creation in August 1998 with three different presidents elected by the parliament.

The main aim Puntland was created in 1998 was to stabilize the northeastern regions. There was a need to get security since the whole country was burning due to the collapse of the central government in 1990. When Puntland was created it was not an issue whether to include women in the government seats or not. As the state’s security was stabilized, the government included issues like improving women’s participation in politics, upgrading health care facilities and education in their agendas.

General Mohamud Musse Hersi (aka Adde Musse), the second Puntland president officially passed a decree in 2008 announcing that “women should hold 30% of government seats” at all levels in Puntland. 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 cultural barriers, lack of probable women candidates and also men’s rivalry in positions.

Puntland government has allocated a quota of 20% for women parliamentarians. However, in the current administration which was elected in January 2009 only two out of 66 seats were taken by women candidates as most of the clans nominated men in all their allocated quotas. Furthermore, the Puntland administration has 54 cabinet members where only four are female candidates. There were no women who officially requested to join the cabinet.

Asha Gelle Dirrie was one of the founders of Puntland state of Somalia, and was a member of Puntland parliament for seven years (1998-2005). She was a part of the committee that drafted the Three Years Charter and Constitution of Puntland state of Somalia. In 2005, she was appointed as the Minister of Women Development and Family Affairs. A position she still holds. She is the only female minister in the Puntland administration.

Gelle managed to reduce violence against women including Female Genital Mutilation, domestic violence, rape and many more by raising awareness throughout the state. Gelle also fought for women’s rights and reduced their marginalization by improving women’s education and their participation in social economics and politics.

Though women mostly do not hold high ranking positions within the government, there are women who have been deputies, directors or even coordinators in different ministries since early 2008. This was a result of the return of many Somali women from abroad. Also women’s improvement in terms of education and their capability of leadership enhanced their participation.

Women in the Puntland administration were estimated to be around 10% before 2009. An assessment carried out in 2009 showed that women’s participation in politics has increased from 10% to 27% in government seats. This was due to the encouragement they received from the community and the government.

There are also women who have been trained as police officers and in other sectors of law enforcement since December 2005 when Academia Arma’ for training armed forces was launched in Puntland. Almost 300 women graduated as majors and police officers since December 2005. But most of them do not perform their duties owing to cultural barriers. People feel awkward if they see women dressed in police uniforms or standing along the road acting like traffic women. This is because most people believe that this is men’s work. Although women and the government are trying their best to change this attitude the prevalent culture is an obstacle.

On the other hand, nomination of the city council in all cities in Puntland is led by the clan elders and they always nominate men. Hence, there are no elections. Also, there are women councilors whose clan nominated them or those who came through something called the women’s clan. When clan elders nominated men in the positions allocated for women, it was agreed to nominate women in addition to the men and include them in the council in order to prevent disputes. It was a onetime nomination that later forced each clan to include women in the council within their allocated quotas.

There are some women councilors in Puntland who work magnificently and even better than men. One example is Farhia Hersi (a councilor who grew from district to regional level in Mudug region) who has worked very hard in projecting women’s issues within and outside the council since 2008. People quote her as an example while highlighting women’s achievements. But there are some women who do not participate effectively in discussions or decision making. This is due to the cultural barriers and gender bias existing within the community especially in remote districts.

Between July and September 2009, I was part of a research team sent by Puntland Development Research Center consisting of thirteen members (lead researchers, assistants, audio visual unit and a program coordinator). Our main aim was to set the implementation phase for our pillars of peace program, a program we are working on. It consists of three pillars namely Security and Rule of Law, Decentralization and Democratization. Also we were assessing the social, political and economical situation of districts in remote areas. One of the things that I remember distinctly from this research is a specific focus group discussion that we held in Jariiban, one of the remote districts. There mostly men councilors discussed the existing issues deeply while women councilors remained silent. We asked the women the reason for not participating in the discussion or expressing their valuable ideas and suggestions. A woman in her forties replied in a low shy voice “We agree with whatever men said”.

Somali people were divided in to clans even before the civil war in 1990. People used to live peacefully together. After the civil war in 1990, the trust between the communities was lost. Though people still live together any unusual movement can easily trigger a conflict.

When the Puntland administration was created, it was based on clans since there were no political parties. A certain quota was allocated for each clan (e.g. in parliament, council, cabinet etc). That makes it difficult for women to be appointed in a certain position allocated for a clan due to her multiple clan affiliations. This gives her opportunities to participate in peace building and reconciliation. Further, the persistent traditional belief that “a woman cannot represent the clan” prevents her from full participation.

One of the reasons why Somali women do not participate in politics is the culture which prevented them from partaking in politics and the belief that they were supposed to remain at home.

Lack of knowledge is also another reason for women’s absence in politics. They are not aware of their rights and what positions they can hold.

When women are mobilized and empowered they can work wonders. They can be good leaders because mostly women are more honest than men. Women are more dedicated to whatever they intend to do. Men should accept that women are their other half. Also men should respect women, encourage them and always stand beside them.

In Somalia, civil society organizations led by women have achieved much in the past two decades. They have helped disempower the warlords and reduced the significance of clan affiliation. They have ensured civil society representation which is essential to any peace and reconciliation process. Somali women made progress on their participation in politics. But Somali women still face constraints in breaking through gender based inequalities and cultural and practical barriers to equal political participation.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

nilima's picture

when i hear the name somalia

when i hear the name somalia the things like hunger, conflict and all these things used to come in to my mind but now as i got you as friend, i think that there are strong woman like you who are working to bring the peace in their country and who raise voice even in difficulty. I am proud of you ruun:)

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Nili, That is right

Dearest Nili,

That is right because mostly the media always broadcast the fights, people suffering and staff like that. Can you imagine I hardly listen to the news these days because all they do is showing these awful events. But honestly there is another page of the story, a beautiful one. No offence that there is still violence in the country but still people learn, work, and life continues. There are actually strong women and one of them is the heroic lady who came to the New Yourk, Dr. Hawa Abdi. This lady is actually a real hero. I hope women will continue their struggle to prove their capability and participate in the state building. Since I joined worldpulse and became friend with you and other strong sisters I felt stronger than before and yeah will keep that forever. Glad we to have a sweet friend like you.

With affection,
RA

nilima's picture

yes ruun, that is what i also

yes ruun,

that is what i also think no matter what happens in the world but life continues and so do we!!

love you ruun:)

Sarvina's picture

Hi Ruun, Well-done, your

Hi Ruun,

Well-done, your piece is so wonderful. I am also proud to be your friend, you are so strong - your voice will be a great role model for all people in Somalia.

Love,
Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Sarvina, Thank you so

Dearest Sarvina,

Thank you so much for the lovely comment. Am also proud to have you as my friend. You are one of a kinda, strong, inspiring friend. We are the change agents in our countries - all of us, and we will prove that.

Lots of love.
RA

Emie Zozobrado's picture

"...Somali women are expected

"...Somali women are expected to submit to men and to fulfill their duties as daughters, wives and mothers." Wow, this line echoes in my own country, particularly during wedding rites. It's in the Holy Bible, and is so much part of the nuptial ceremony. Well, as of now so much has changed ... no, not the rites. The Church has managed to keep the wedding ceremony the way it has always been, but the "submission and subservience of women/wives to men/husbands" as read during wedding ceremonies has evolved into a much more practical and meaningful state now. Today, many husbands and wives have come into some sort of "power-sharing". Ruun, everything that endures evolves. I can see that woman power is rising in Somalia. One day you will wake up to enjoy the fruits of your struggle. The journey may be rough, but as the song goes ... "If we hold on together, I know our dreams will never die. We'll see it through ...." And you will see it through in Somalia....

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Emie, Yeah that is

Dearest Emie,

Yeah that is right and its in the Holy Qo'ran too. its beautiful when women fulfill their duties but also they have got rights, it was hardly to see in Somalia women/wives and men/husbands having power sharing but nowadays it seems like things are changing from time to time and hope everyone will consider the other partner as their half and they will stand for one another. I will pray to see that day when when we harvest the fruits of our efforts and all our efforts turned in to reality. Change is on the way my dear sis as they say "Roma wasn't built in one day" we wait and keep the strugles.

Glad we met and became friends. Am so delighted to have a friend like you who is so strong and courageous, you always inspire me.

Regards,
RA.

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Cheers!

We inspire each other, Ruun! We are sisters ...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Emie Zozobrado's picture

"...Somali women are expected

"...Somali women are expected to submit to men and to fulfill their duties as daughters, wives and mothers." Wow, this line echoes in my own country, particularly during wedding rites. It's in the Holy Bible, and is so much part of the nuptial ceremony. Well, as of now so much has changed ... no, not the rites. The Church has managed to keep the wedding ceremony the way it has always been, but the "submission and subservience of women/wives to men/husbands" as read during wedding ceremonies has evolved into a much more practical and meaningful state now. Today, many husbands and wives have come into some sort of "power-sharing". Ruun, everything that endures evolves. I can see that woman power is rising in Somalia. One day you will wake up to enjoy the fruits of your struggle. The journey may be rough, but as the song goes ... "If we hold on together, I know our dreams will never die. We'll see it through ...." And you will see it through in Somalia....

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Emie Zozobrado's picture

Congratulations, Ruun!

Wow, sister! You are now at the homepage - a frontliner in our struggle! Congratulations and all the best...

Always,
Emie Zozobrado

Ruun Abdi's picture

Wohooooo!

Dearest Emie,

Am so excited my dea ..... That is an honor seriously and its all because of sisters like you who stood by my side or else i wouldn't have found my voice and shared it with the rest of the community what is really happening at my place ....Thank you so much for congratulating meeeeeeeeee...

Love ya sis,
RA

warona's picture

ALL THE BEST TO YOU GAL!

Dear friend!

Lack of knowledge is also another reason for women’s absence in politics. They are not aware of their rights and what positions they can hold.When women are mobilized and empowered they can work wonders. They can be good leaders because mostly women are more honest than men. Women are more dedicated to whatever they intend to do. Men should accept that women are their other hand.

I like these sentences Ruun,they are so powerful my dear. These are some of the challneges we women face, illeteracy .This on its own limits women 's movements.They fear the unknown because they are not empowered but once the empowerment reaches them,indeed they can do wonders.

wish all the best

Warona

"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Warona, That is write

Dearest Warona,

That is write my dear illeteracy is what always limits women world wide. If i had the chance to do only one thing it would have been educating/empowering women because i know from the bottom of ma heart if had the chance to learn they will stand firm, fight for their rights and nobody and i mean nobody will mislead them since they know what is right and what is wrong. I will always try hard untill i get that chance or at least empower someone on my own.

All the best for all of us.
RA

Pushpa Achanta's picture

Great work!

Well presented, Ruun. More strength and spirit to you and all other lovely sisters in Somalia.

Love,
Pushpa

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Pushpa,Thank you so

Dearest Pushpa,

Thank you so much for the comment, This has turned beautifully written peice because of your and Eunice's untiring efforts as well as the other sisters here... What a wonderful Mentor and Editorial midwife God granted me... Am blessed for sure!

Lots of love,
RA

Onni Milne's picture

Women Power in Somalia

Hello. I am writing from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I read your story about women in Somalia with interest. Like an earlier commentor, the news I hear about Somalia has to do with violence between the government and warlords around Mogadishu, Somali pirates capturing vessels off your coast or Somali Al-Qada recruiting young Muslims from the West to carry out suicide missions. It was good to hear there are other things happening for the citizens of Somalia.

I think you have a wonderful job travelling around the country to review what is happening to and for women. Thank you for highlighting women leaders we need to pay attention to. Thank you for describing the many hurdles you face and are dealing with. I like hearing that progress for women's issues has grown. I look forward to hearing that real change has happened at all levels. For your information, even a developed country like Canada does not have equal representation for women in our Parliament, the Federal Government in Ottawa. One report I heard on CBC radio stated that Rwanda now has more women representatives than we do here.

May the collective power of women in Somalia create long lasting peace and development to enable all citizens the opportunity of using their skills to create an enlightened and prosperous future.

Onni Milne

Ruun Abdi's picture

It's true as I have mentioned

It's true as I have mentioned earlier that all these violence media broadcasting are true. In Mogadishu and its neighboring cities is a ground for death, the so called transitional federal government troops with the support of the AMISON from one side and the extremists in the other side exchanging heavy shells which causes many casualties for the civilians. As for the coastal area the pirates are hijacking every vessel they get access to and they put themselves at risk. This time there are no warlords on their own as they joined either the government or the opposition groups. To be honest it would have been much better for the civilians when the warlords were in charge now it’s much worse.

But my surprise as well as others is that almost all the news focuses on violence, people dying, hunger and so on, they hardly broadcast the developmental issues or things been accomplished and so on. To be honest with you here in Somalia, people are used to hear shocking news and it became a habit for the ears to listen to those horrible news. Suppose if the radio broadcasts something related to development of the country, maybe the system of the education been improved or health or new universities/schools been opened and so on ... these are good news to hear but if you ask someone "Hey I didn’t listen to the radio please update me". They will tell you "it wasn't interesting"! Can you imagine that!.

As it seems now I hope women has started to be in charge of change, become the agents of change and show they capability in state building and reconciliations. I do totally agree with you that in this world women and men are not equally represented in the governments or some other positions but from time to time I hope we will get that chance to get our equal representation.

Onni Milne's picture

Good News from Somalia

Hello. I hope with all my heart that I will soon be able to hear many "good news" stories from Somalia on our radio programs. Each day, there are millions of us waking up, communicating with others, offering others opportunities to grow and heal. I truly appreciate that you have told the world that is happening in some places in your country now.

Onni Milne

Farona's picture

Congratulations !

Woahhhhhhhh I am so happy you choose the peace building topic ! I remember we were talking about it on skype ;-)

I see you at the fore front of creating change and bringing peace to your community ;-)

Women are natural peace makers !!!!!!! It's time Somali women are given a chance to utilize their wisdom to foster lasting change

My love and well wishes for your next assignment ;- )

Ruun Abdi's picture

Happy to hear from you

Dearest Farona,

Thanks for the lovely comment. Yeah I couldn’t imagine a better topic for my frontline, when we have been told "If you had a chance to write once what will you write" I said to myself if i had the chance to write once in my life and raise my voice to be heard across oceans this is the topic i could have chosen.

How have you been? i tried calling you but every time I dial your number it was disconnecting and was worried about you, I didn’t send you email believing that if you had access to internet you could have posted your assignment or at least I could have seen you online. I was worried so much because the last time we talked over Skype you told me how the authority passed strict orders for journalists and bollogers and that you cant register and so on, but i am so happy now to hear from you.

Stay blessed and take care of you.

patf's picture

I learned a lot...

...from your article, Ruun. I feel like I understand more now than I ever did before about why change is so hard in Somalia, expecially in Puntland. It is encouraging that many women dare to step out and step up---what courage they have with the culture being grounded in history about what women should do. Many blessings sent your way from Pat F.

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dear Pat, Thank you so much

Dear Pat,

Thank you so much for taking time to read my article and getting back to me with this lovely comment. It’s true that in Somalia things are very difficult especially when it comes to who will be elected as the president or which clan will be the leaders. because people are divided in to clans and it makes it very hard to resolve these issues that is why some regions who share same roots gathered and established state governments while some regions are still burning like those neighboring Mogadishu.

Regards.

Onni Milne's picture

Will You Support 5WCW

Hello. I received an email from Jean Shinoda Bolen who is working to organize the 5th World Conference on Women. I am sending you the urls for it in case you (and your friends) wish to participate. I believe this is an opportunity to enhance peace and the empowerment of women around the world:

jeanbolen@gmail.com
http://www.go petition.com/petitions/support-a-un-5th-world-conference-on-women.html
http://www.5wwc.org/organizations/org_listing_form.html

Onni Milne

Onni Milne

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Onni, Thank you so

Dearest Onni,

Thank you so much for the updates I will look at it and get back to you in case I need more info.

Regards.

Onni Milne's picture

Will You Support 5WCW

Whoops. I made a mistake in typing the 2d email address. Here is the correct url:

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/support-a-un-5th-world-conference-on...

Onni Milne

Onni Milne

Ruun Abdi's picture

Thank you!

Thank you!
:-)

ssaeed's picture

very informative article

Thank you Runn for this informative article. I learned a lot about the roles and potential of women in peace building. I especially liked reading about the women involved in politics and society today in Puntland.....they have left me feeling hopeful that one day women will be perceived as key figures essential to community organizing. :)

Sana

Sana

Ruun Abdi's picture

Thank you so much dear sana.

Thank you so much dear sana. Am glad that you liked reading my post and learned new things about women and peacebuilding in my country. Hope things will change soon. ;)

Regards,
RA

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