I recently met 13-year old Salma* in one of the settlements for the Internally Displaced People on the outskirts of Hergeisa, Somaliland. She was heavily pregnant. Everything seems to be a struggle for her. This made me want to know more about her. It turned out that a 30-year man who lives in their neighbourhood had raped her. When she told her parents, they confronted the man but he denied their claim. Her parents later sought the help of the elders of the community. They ruled that Salma should be married to her rapist. So Salma has been living with her rapist for the last six month and the pregnancy is a constant reminder of her nightmare. Unfortunately this is just one of many cases of sexual and gender based violence that end up like this due to lack of legal instrument to punish perpetrators and protect the victims.
However this injustice will now come to an end. Because on August 29th, 2018, President H.E Muse Bihii signed the Sexual Offenses law criminalising all forms of gender based violence and sexual offenses in Somaliland. This is a huge step towards ending sexual violence in Somaliland including FGM and child marriages. We spoke to Nafisa Yusuf, Executive Director of Nagaad Network, and the energy behind this Law. She says we have won the battle but the war is far from over! Nagaad Network is one of Save the Children’s partners in Somaliland.
How did you start advocating for a sexual offences Law in Somaliland? What motivated you and Nagaad to get involved?
In 2011, Nagaad attended a Civil Society Forum where CSOs, line ministries and INGOs were present. During this forum they discussed which policies members are going to advocate for. As Nagaad specialises in women and children's empowerment, we decided to push for Sexual Offensive Bill. As an umbrella organisation for a women’s organisation, we understand clearly the most challenging issues women and girls face everyday, more than anyone else. Everyday we receive cases of women who have been raped or have experienced other forms of violence and they don’t get justice that they deserve. Their rapist would not be punished. Sometimes, a single girl is raped by a group of men and nothing would be done. This is because there is no common law to punish the rapist and to uphold the rights of the victims. The culture, domestic laws and the poor implementation of religious laws were not adequate. This pained me.
We also conducted a number of studies and awareness-raising sessions and the outcome demonstrated the importance of having a sexual offences law in Somaliland. That is why we decided to push for this Law.
Tell us the entire journey that Nagaad, under your leadership, took to get here.
The bill was important- a lot of people thought that the bill was going against the Somali culture and religion and therefore it was unacceptable. However, it was a bit easier to convince some decision makers. I remember, at one point, one of the ministers was affected personally when one of his closest relatives was raped. The lady used to live in his house when the incident happened. We approached him to be our supporter and he immediately accepted to champion the cause. He immediatly understood why it was important- if someone in his own house could be assaulted, how easy it was for other women and girls, especially those most vulnerable, to be sexually assaulted? He was later appointed the minister for family and social affairs, which was key ministry for the bill. We are thnakful that he continued to champion the cause.
We also used different tactics. For example, when we failed to get Members of Parliament to the discussion table, we were able to appeal to their spouses or their other female relatives tourge them to meet with us. We identified every opportunity and wentstraight for it to push for the bill.
What were the key challenges and lessons that can we learn from the process?
The main challenge was the lack of resources. As you know this process took us almost seven years -the mobilization events, lobby meetings and other initiates required us to gather them slowly but surely. As we did not have a reliable budget from our donors to sustain all the advocacy initiatives and most of the resources that we received were project-based, we would often be told halfway through the project that the funding for it has come to end, so we need to find more resources elsewhere. But despite this, we managed to push through and collect enough resources to achieve our goal.
The other key challenge included the negative perception towards the bill and its intentions. Apart from the MPs, the community itself was not supportive despite all our efforts to raise awareness. We then decided to start talking about rape openly. We shared stories and cases of rape with the community to justify why this particular law was important. By doing this, we were able to convince the community leaders and the rest of the community, leading them to become our supporters.
What was the role of national and international partners like Save the Children?
The local and International NGOs, as well as UN agencies played a key role in lobbying the government and other key stakeholders for the approval of this law. UNFPA, UNDP, UNWOMEN, CARE and Amplify Change were also critical in providing financial and technical support throughout the process. Nagaad members also played a huge role in mobilization, raising awareness and making a case for this law to be approved.
Now the Law has been approved, what does this mean for women and girls in Somaliland?
This law protects all people against all forms of sexual violence, but it also provides special protection for women and girls in Somaliland. One of the most common practices in the Somali culture would be to solve rape cases by asking the rapist to marry his victim. However, this law now allows women and girls to exert their right to refuse the suggestion to marry their rapist and instead seek justice.
What change are we expecting to see with this Law?
The law will change the perception that some people can commit injustice and hide behind culture and religion. Lots of women and girls were violated and abused under this guise. The law guarantees the rights of women and girls and it is in-line with the religion in this country and also by international law. We are hoping that women and girls will be protected and be allowed to be free from all forms of violence.
Now we have the law, what's next?
This is just the beginning of our work. We still have a long way to go. We have to make sure everyone, particularly women and girls, are aware of the new law and what rights it guarantees for them. We must make sure that law enforcement agencies, community and religious leaders are also aware that things have to change. We cannot continue to handle sexual violence the way we had previously. Nagaad is committed to see this law being implemented effectively so that it can actually bring change in the lives of women and girls, as well as the community at large.
What is your message to the people of Somaliland?
First of all I would like to congratulate everyone who took part in this process in one-way or the other. I am very excited to see that all our efforts have finally paid off. But the fight is not yet over. Now we have the law in place, but it is our responsibility to make sure that we understand our rights and responsibilities as stated in this law. We must continue to work together to preserve this law and ensure that it remains effective.