Every Last Child: A call to transform girls’ lives in Somalia

Driving through an internal displaced camp in Bossaso, Puntland, I never knew that I would meet two of the most resilient girls in my child protection career. When we arrived in the Save the Children supported school, the headmaster introduced us to a class of 5th graders aged between 9 and 11 years old. We started by asking them a few questions and, as common in most Somali schools, almost all the boys raised their hands, eager to respond. Only two girls seemed to raise their hands, with a handful sitting at the back of the classroom unwilling to speak up. I was quickly drawn to the girls whose hands were raised, and they answered all the questions in detail which was beyond what was expected of their age. 

The stories told by Shamso* and Ikran,* aged 12 and 13, are heartbreaking but unfortunately too often heard. The two were the only girls left in school, which started up in 2010 when Save the Children initiated the project in their camp. The girls informed me that most of their peers had been married to older men since their families felt it would secure the riches their impoverished families could not provide. They gave names of 10 girls in their class who had at least one child and could not attend school anymore. Some of their friends narrated how their husbands had abandoned the girls. When I met these girls, I wondered how life could be different for them if it were not for the continuous support and interventions of our dedicated child protection teams working with their parents to encourage them to keep the girls in school.

Marriage is, arguably, one of the most important life transitions for a woman, yet 150 million girls are married every year in the world before they turn 18 years. This usually happens against their will, forcing them to drop out of school and risking early childbirth as a result. Those who marry early are more likely to experience domestic violence, forced sexual relations, reduced levels of sexual and reproductive health and lower levels of education. Children born to teenage mothers are more likely to be premature, have a low birth weight and are 50% more likely to die in the first year as compared to children born to women in their twenties. Postpartum haemorrhage, a life-threatening condition, is of particular concern where health services are weak or women cannot easily access them.

In Somalia, 45% of girls are married before they turn 18 due to pressures of conservative cultural attitudes regarding gender roles and family structure. The humanitarian contexts in Somalia further exacerbate the situation making girls more vulnerable to the practice. In emergencies where there is a heightened level of poverty and vulnerability, and where families have lost everything, tough household decisions have to be made including even marrying off a young adolescent girl. Where there is mass displacement then additional factors come into play, such as parents’ concern of sexual violence in the camp and viewing marriage as a ‘protective’ measure, that a married ‘woman’ is less likely to be subjected to sexual violence than an unmarried ‘girl’.  Legal protections and enforcement against early marriage are also weak due to the pluralistic nature of the legal system where, formal statutory law, Islamic Shari’ah law and customary law (xeer) co-exist with unclear demarcation of their application.

The transformation of these deep-rooted practices and the underlying mindset is the biggest challenge that calls for a multi-faceted and harmonized strategy. We need to continue investing in education and eliminate barriers that limit access to education for girls. Governments and communities must also continue to tackle poverty. Early marriage occurs most frequently in the poorest households because the bride-price is an attractive source of income. A clear legal commitment to establish the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old for both girls and boys has to be established. We cannot understate the importance of engaging communities to eradicate this practice. Religious and traditional leaders, men and children themselves including boys all have a critical role to play in overcoming the deep-rooted drivers of injustice and inequality that make the lives of girls like Shamso and Ikran living in fragile states so vulnerable to violence.

As we launch the Every Last Child campaign globally, Save the Children Somalia/Somaliland Programme will focus on bringing to light the challenges girls face in Somalia alongside partners and communities. We are promoting children’s rights by breaking down taboos and giving girls the opportunity to voice their opinions and address issues affecting their lives. We will continue to campaign and engage with relevant government ministries on legal and policy reforms, as well as strengthening both formal and informal child protection systems to enable them prevent and respond to harmful practices. The country programme pledges to engage the community and empower them to make the right choices – which will ensure excluded children are given the best chance to reach their full potential.  

When I speak to the girls involved with our work in Somalia/Somaliland, I am amazed at the way they are able to rise to the challenge. I feel a palpable change. With adequate support, they can achieve anything they set their minds to. They are the world’s future leaders and decision-makers. Despite seeing Shamso and Ikran’s tenacity and hope to remain in school and complete their education before they decide to get married, our departure from the IDP camp left me wondering with a deep sense of anxiety for how long will they be able to stay in school amidst family, social, economic and peer pressures to get married.

* Names have been changed to protect children