To mark this year's 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, we feature stories from activists and journalists to highlight the power, resolve and solidarity of women activists across Somalia.
These stories were gathered in partnership with Somali Women Development Center and Somali Women Studies Center. To learn more about the situation women in Somalia are facing, read our blog: “No justice for women, no peace”: Activists highlight the barriers women are facing in Somalia.
Anifa* is a 34-year-old social worker who lives in a camp for internally displaced people in Baidoa. She is a single parent to six children.
Speaking to us about her experiences before and after moving to the camp, she explained, “the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Baidoa has displaced large populations and put many women and girls at greater risk of violence, including sexual violence at internally displaced people’s camps. Gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence severely impact women’s and girls’ right to life, livelihoods and dignity".
Anifa began helping gender-based violence (GBV) survivors and advocating for women's rights in 2014, when she joined the Protection Department of a Somali humanitarian organisation. This was at a time when few organisations were working in the field of protection, and when women’s rights were not taken seriously. Forced marriages, female genital mutilation and GBV were widespread – many women felt they had no choice but to endure it due to social norms and the fear of being stigmatised by their communities, and so cases of abuse went unreported.
Anifa faced discrimination: her neighbours (including women), clan elders, militia groups and local politicians threatened her. She even suffered physical attacks – some claimed that the work Anifa was doing contradicted Islam. Her (now ex-) husband also disapproved of her job: he stopped providing for their children, abused her physically in front of her family and neighbours, and used to follow her to work, where he would insult and humiliate her in front of her colleagues, forcing her to return home. Anifa left her job and stayed at home as a housewife – but the abuse did not stop.
Between rocks and hard places
In 2020 Anifa had to make the hardest decision of her life. Her husband had agreed to a divorce, but gave her an ultimatum: she could either give up all claims to her children and never see them again, or she could keep custody of them but renounce all rights to child support. She chose to keep her children.
It wasn’t easy for her to provide for the family on her own, despite working multiple jobs (like doing people’s laundry and cooking). She had to pay bills and rent, and buy uniforms, stationery and food for her children. Due to accumulated rent arrears Anifa and her children (including a six-month-old baby girl) were forced out of their home. Her older children dropped out of school. She had no money, nowhere to live, and no one to turn to. She also knew that a well-paid job without a good college certificate was beyond her reach. “I didn’t go to college, I only finished primary school and two years of secondary school, then my father married me off to my husband when I was 15 years old," Anifa told us.
Anifa and her children had only their clothes and personal belongings when they arrived at the IDP camp. However, she was able to find a job as a social worker at the Somali Women Development Centre (SWDC), a civil society organisation based in South West state. But her income was not enough to buy anything more than the food she and her children needed to survive. As she couldn’t afford to take her children to school again, they stayed home, took care of each other and cooked and cleaned for themselves.
Skills and opportunities for independence
One day, the IDP community leader approached Anifa and invited her to join a United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (UNPBF) project – implemented by Saferworld in partnership with SWDC – which supports women activists and journalists through training and grants. Anifa immediately agreed, and has since undergone training in GBV case management.
Now Anifa is a fully qualified social worker at the SWDC, with an increase in her salary and a smartphone, which she uses to report cases of GBV using a specially developed observatory system. Every Thursday, Anifa raises awareness among the IDP community about the importance of protecting women rights, and of how and where to report GBV cases.
Outside of this work, she sells wheat, maize and red beans at a shop he has opened, making about US$50–70 a month in profit. With this, plus her salary from SWDC, she can afford to pay school fees for her children, buy them clothes and shoes, and treat them to their favourite food. She is happy to be an independent woman and is excited about growing and expanding her career and her business – and continuing to advocate for women’s rights.
She told us: “I will take this opportunity during the 16 Days of Activism to create awareness and share my story with fellow survivors to encourage them and to empower them to come out, seek help and rebuild themselves again."
Aisha – a blind disability rights campaigner based in Mogadishu – has made it her mission to fight for her rights and the rights of other women and girls with disabilities: “We can do everything just fine – we just need the space to learn how to”.
Being a vocal disability rights campaigner in Somalia – a country widely known for a culture of playful insults – has sharpened Aisha’s wit. “I used to constantly date Somali men who live abroad,” she recalls with a grin, “I didn’t even care if they had a job! As long as they would get me away from here”.
Aisha believes that women with disabilities should be able to lead full lives, including relationships with the men they choose. “Families will often marry off their daughters to older men,” who they think will take care of them. But Aisha is a firm believer in “calaf”, a Somali word that loosely translates to luck, in particular when it comes to finding the right partner.
Aisha told us about some of the vulnerabilities that activists and women with disabilities face: “A cane [for example] makes you an easy target. I always walk without one – as men can use it against you and physically assault you while pretending to lend a helping hand.”
While there is little focus on the daily lives of people with disabilities in Somalia and even less informed data, Aisha has cemented her role in her community as an advocate for the rights of women and girls with disabilities.
Now she wants to share her insights with all Somalis – so that as the country rebuilds it does so with accessibility in mind; so that all Somalis can live in a country that recognises the diversity of disability, tackles stigma and discrimination, employs people with disabilities, makes communication accessible and works alongside disabled people’s organisations.
“I don’t want people to see me as weak or unable to do things. That is just not true and I try to work with other women who have disabilities to make them realise that they can navigate this country too, just as I do.”
Cosob* is a journalist based in Kismayo, Jubaland. She produces videos documenting the experiences of women, particularly vulnerable women, living across her region. She spoke to us about her life and her job.
Can you describe your work?
My work is in video creation and video design. I work on programmes that empower women and girls and display their entrepreneurial talents, and on reports and clips covering women’s needs during this period of crisis. I usually broadcast the voices of the unheard, travelling to the outskirts and reporting on women and girls in rural areas.
Somalia is a very communal society. How has the community contributed to the work you do?
The community is split into two parts: some strongly disagree with what I'm doing and try to discourage me or even threaten me; others encourage me and contribute to my efforts.
How do you keep hope alive through your work?
What always encourages me is when I see young women like me doing the same job and covering marginalised people – it’s rare for women to become journalists. What greatly motivates me as well is the good relationships with my colleagues and the encouragement they give me.
How do you empower yourself and the women around you?
I am a good example and role model for women journalists. Through various programmes of my media organisation, I ensured the training and mentoring of many women journalists in Jubaland and beyond. As for myself, I participate various skill-building programmes, I develop reports of my own to build my skills and professionalism and also ensure that I am well equipped in media reporting skills. This way, I am enriching my skills and developing my professionalism, by developing a feeling of ownership in my work and of service to the community.
How do you fight for justice in the face of apparent weak political will?
It is hard to find justice in the face of this apparent weak political system but I protect myself by ignoring some of the news that will bring me harm or an attack. If something happens to me, I will report it to the police, courts and traditional elders – the normal justice channels available in the district.
How do you practice self-care in the work you do?
I practice developing good relationship with my colleagues and co-workers. I usually avoid going into warzones, to protect myself from danger.
What kind of changes have you seen over the last few years that have given you hope?
Whereas before there was not much community development going on, now there are big changes. There are women-led organisations where there weren’t any before. And the number of women journalists has increased. These things give me hope.
Rahmo is a gender-based violence helpline worker. She spoke to us about her role in supporting survivors.
“I always tell survivors to be strong, because there are many people who can help them."
"I've been working as a hotline operator for two years now working on different GBV cases from women activists and survivors from South West region. I have realised that I have a major role in fighting GBV."
"I know where and how to refer survivors to seek psycho-social, health and legal services. When there is a serious case of violence, I immediately report it to the responsible department, especially the GBV centre manager, so they intervene as soon as possible."
Rahmo – who works for Somalia Community Action Group, a Baidoa-based NGO – honed a lot of her skills during a Somali Women Development Centre training course to improve referral pathways for GBV survivors.
“I always tell survivors to be strong because there are many people who can help them. If they are injured, they can get help – it is my responsibility to refer women to the nearest health centre or hospital. If they think that they can no longer live with their husbands, they can get legal services at the commune office."
Creating safer spaces for women
“Personally, I experienced sexual harassment. I was denied an internship placement in a Baidoa-based NGO because I refused to have sex with one of the bosses. This frustrated my dream – as a woman – of working in in any organisation, but then I found refuge in a SWDC safe house in Baidoa and got my job as a hotline operator."
“There must be so many women who lose out on their dreams – but who don’t report any harassment they experience or get proper support. Now that I know how powerful I can be in helping survivors of GBV to fight injustice, I believe I am creating safer spaces for women."
“Stories of gender-based violence are everywhere and impact everyone. Now I can start to ensure that the cases I receive, especially about GBV, are followed up in pursuit of justice. I shall no longer record cases and leave them there – it is important to go above and beyond, and to provide all the help survivors need.”