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‘Living Hell’: Somalia’s Hidden Rape Epidemic

By Taylor Hom

Nadifa, a widowed mother of four, left her hut near Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, to search for food. When she returned home hours later, she found a man raping her 11-year-old daughter. Nadifa tried to defend her daughter but was torn away by armed men as she screamed. The neighborhood watched helplessly as the men abducted Nadifa. She was pistol-whipped, kicked, punched, and scorched with burning plastic. 

In Somalia, this is no anomaly. In a country torn by civil war, terrorism, and a mass famine, tens of thousands have died, and there has not been a functioning government for two decades. In mid-October, Kenya invaded Somalia, allegedly to fight al-Shabab, one of the world’s most fearsome terrorist organizations. With rising food prices, aid agencies like the UN’s World Food Program fear increased problems with food theft. While the world focuses on al-Shabab and food aid efficiency, the deteriorating situation has created an environment ripe for escalating gender violence. While the whole of Somalia carries the weight of the famine blistering the Horn of Africa, it’s women like Nadifa who bear the burden of the nation’s humanitarian catastrophe. Ensuring the safety of Somali women will pay long-term dividends for the stability of the country, and in the short-term, save thousands from the horrors of rape.

Sinead Murray, a program manager for the International Rescue Committee, says there has been a four-fold increase in sexual violence since June. More and more women are being raped while fleeing to refugee camps, and even more tragically, once they are inside the camps as well. With no form of authority to punish the rapists, women fear menial tasks like walking to a bathroom. Establishing an efficient means of food aid in this corrupt nation is essential, but it won’t do much good if women have to fear leaving their homes. 

International forces have given money and various forms of aid to the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and neighboring Kenya, who hosts thousands of Somali refugees in Dadaab camp, the world’s largest refugee site. It is time these international forces, alongside the Somali and Kenyan governments, make protecting women a priority. Rape has become not just a tactic of war but a devastating social norm. Amid so many other problems, women’s rights have been placed on the backburner. If gender violence continues unnoticed and unpunished, beside the scars of starvation and war, there will be a fear embedded in the women of Somali that no level of international aid can heal. Gender violence undermines any potential success in the region.

Somalia is one of the world’s worst places to be a woman, according to a recent survey by Trust Law, a project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Somalia’s minister for women's development and family welfare, Maryan Qasim, says she is “completely surprised” that Somalia isn’t number one (it currently ranks behind Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo), calling the nation a “living hell” for females. 

Since women rarely report sexual violence and a rape victim in Somalia is taboo, the statistics are at best fuzzy. Al-Shabab considers a woman that reports her own rape to be a criminal. In 2008, Amnesty International released a report of a 13-year-old girl who was killed after her family reported she was raped. A number of eyewitnesses say she was brutally beaten to death in front of 1,000 spectators, buried neck high and pelted with stones. Allegedly, during the stoning, nurses were sent to check if the girl was still alive. They reported yes, so they removed her from the ground and continued to beat her until she died.

Rape has become an everyday crime that wriggles itself free from any form of justice. Sexual violence is seldom reported because many  women “fear that their families will blame them, communities will reject them or simply because they feel ashamed to talk about it,” says Ann Burton, a senior public health officer at the United Nations Refugee Agency.

It is important that along with food aid, support is given to clinics that aid victims of rape, paving the way towards some kind of justice, showing that rape doesn’t have to be a fact of life. Organizations like Sister Somalia, which established the first sexual violence hotline, should be supported and encouraged. They also provide medical service, counseling, and business starter kits for rape survivors. But Sister Somalia currently only serves 300 women a year–among them Nadifa–but this is just a small fraction of the nation's victims. 

Women travel hundreds of kilometers with their children to find peace at camps like Dadaab in Kenya, now the word’s biggest refugee site. Here, gangs of men have found opportunity. In the 50-mile stretch from Mogadishu to the border, bandits wait for refugees where they often rob men and rape women. 

Once in the Kenyan refugee camp of Dadaab, the majority of the families are female-headed, according to the UN. Many husbands have died, been killed, or simply abandoned their families, leaving women to lead their families through drought, famine, and civil war, alone. As the camp continues to grow, sexual violence has increased drastically. Women fear leaving the safety of a large group for such quotidian tasks as retrieving firewood, since groups of men often lurk in the woods waiting for a lone woman.

"Some women interviewed during (the IRC) survey said they witnessed women and girls being raped in front of their husbands and parents, at the insistence of perpetrators described as 'men with guns.' Others were forced to strip down naked, and… they were raped by multiple perpetrators," says Murray.

Dadaab camp now constitutes Kenya’s third largest city, and some reports claim that Somali citizens employed by the Kenyan government to protect the border against al-Shabab are often rapists themselves. Kenya receives millions in aid from the U.S. If Kenya has enough troops for an invasion into the southern portions of Somalia, they should be able to provide some sort of protection around the refugee camps.

Kenya is right—al-Shabab needs to be eliminated. But protecting women cannot wait until terrorists, famine, and disease are defeated entirely. Protection for women must be implemented simultaneously. If millions of dollars, countless pounds of food, arms, and drones are devoted to Somalia by western powers, then they can afford to emphasize the plight of women, especially in and around the refugee camps. 

The UN and other aid agencies say that the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid has not been wholly effective. While much of it is lost in the corrupt and disorganized political system, it’s also impossible to ensure food reaches the female-headed households if women are afraid to leave their huts. Making sure that women feel safe, especially in and near refugee camps, will do wonders to improve the efficiency of aid delivery.

The country is in shambles, and helping Somalia will not be simple. Many analysts are worried that in the coming rainy season diseases like malaria, cholera, and measles could ravage an already weak population. But we cannot wait for the many ails of Somalia to be cured before the Somali women are noticed. Right now, there is an unacknowledged war being waged and rape epidemic has become an emblem of Somalia’s chaos. The shattered nation is in desperate need of organized governance. To address the plight of women would not only be a step towards justice, but towards the rebuilding of a cohesive and functioning society.

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Taylor Hom is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation/Turkey's photostream]

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