POLITICS-SOMALILAND: Women on the Cutting-Edge of Change

Mark Waller

HELSINKI, Jun 11 2001 (IPS) - Despite its disputed status and lack of recognition as an independent country, the Republic of Somaliland has often been in the news in recent years, hailed as a success story of peace and growing stability in a region plagued by conflict and anarchy.

The former British protectorate broke its union with Somalia in 1991 following the overthrow of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre who ruled the Horn of African country for 22 years.

Somaliland suffered heavily from war and conflict over the next three years but gradually the clan militias disarmed. Peace took root.

This was achieved by the efforts of the traditionally male- dominated clan communities in Somaliland.

But a striking feature of peace making in Somaliland is the leading contribution of Somali women.

This has had a knock-on effect.

“Women are emerging on all levels of public life and are at the forefront of peace building efforts,” Zeynab Hassan told a meeting on Women and Peace hosted by Finnchurchaid, a Protestant non- governmental organisation (ngo), in Helsinki, on Jun 8.

She said women “are active in organising and facilitating reconciliation conferences. They also demand to take part in the decision-making processes that have a profound impact on their lives.”

Hassan, who works for the Life and Peace Institute in Somaliland, is visiting Finland together with Amina Warsame of the fledgling Somaliland Women’s Research and Action Group.

They are in Finland to share ideas with local NGOs about the momentous changes in women’s lives in Somaliland, and also to meet members of the Somali refugee community in Finland.

Their visit comes just days after the results of Somaliland’s May 31 constitutional referendum were announced. This has been presented as a landslide show of support for Somaliland’s statehood.

Official figures put the voter turn out at just over a million of a population of 2.5 million, with 97 per cent in favour of a constitutional process that will create a multi-party system leading to elections in Feb 2002.

For Hassan and Warsame, the advances made by women on the road to empowerment and equality can start to be reflected in new party political structures.

“One of the biggest problems women face is that they are not included in the decision-making process,” says Warsame. “Change will take time. People are not used to women leaders. They think that power structures only exist for men.”

“And yet,” says Hassan, “we have seen women really having a new place in society. Somali women are not only the backbone of Somali society today, they are the backbone of the economy.”

Hassan’s work for the Life and Peace Institute centres on running a civic education programme to strengthen the empowerment of Somali women.

Her colleague, Warsame has focussed on providing reliable research on the economic, social and peace building roles of women and how these mesh with their actual rights in society.

They represent just two of a mushrooming array of NGOs run by women in Somaliland. In the capital Hargeisa, alone, there are more than 50.

Both Hassan and Warsame avoid what they see as simplistic portrayals of Somali women in much Western development literature. This depicts them either as victims of oppressive tradition or trailblazers of empowerment.

“It’s much more complicated,” says Hassan. “Many women in Somaliland are illiterate and they face many cultural barriers.”

“But they have been central to bringing peace, and because of the war women are now often heads of their families and the sole breadwinners for their own families and their extended families.”

Hassan says that a big problem women face is to challenge taboos that put them in a subservient position to men.

“A lot of these are believed to be in the Muslim religion, but they are not. In Somaliland women do not know enough about religion, because if they did they would see that there is no basis, for instance, for them to be confined to the home,” she says.

“There’s a passage in the Koran that says whoever treats his boy or girl differently is not a Muslim. Imagine if all our women knew that,” says Hassan.

Warsame says that the Women’s Research and Action Group is recording how customs — concerning women and their ways to seek justice and assert their rights — have changed in recent years.

One engaging example is the way women have used the oral tradition of song and poetry to spread ideas for change.

“Women mobilised people against the war largely through this tradition,” says Warsame. “They altered the words of old songs or added bits to protest at the conflict between clans or to say no to using weapons.”

In a society where poetry and song is as communicative, as is the internet in some countries, the oral tradition was a powerful tool for change.

“It still is,” says Warsame. “But things have changed since the war. Women carry a greater burden of responsibility, they are more in charge of income and property and there is more hostility and violence against them by men because of their changing role.”

“This is all expressed in poems and songs. For example, there is a poem people recite about having a baby girl and how society discriminates against girls in favour of boys,” says Warsame.

But maybe change is coming by force of circumstance.

Someone – a man – asked Hassan if Somali men were turning into house-spouses. ” In my case, yes,” she replied. “Because for me to be here (in Finland) my husband has to take care of our kids.”

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