“We are one community”: building safety and security in Somalia

16 January 2019 Hamse Matan

Conflict in Somalia has translated into violence and insecurity for many communities across the country. Community groups, supported by Saferworld and partners, bring people together to identify and address priority security issues – but establishing these groups comes with its own set of challenges.                

Before the war [1991], there was a national security system where we felt protected,” says Kafiya Abdi, a mother of nine living in an Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camp in Kismayo. “Now, I worry for my family’s safety. We have a close-knit community in the camp but we are exposed to danger in the makeshift housing. But this is my country – it’s where I belong.”

Twenty-eight years after the collapse of Somalia’s central government, despite periods of relative peace, people continue to experience daily insecurity and instability. From high levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), to poor community-police relationships, safety is especially precarious for marginalised members of society. 

In December 2016, Saferworld and partners began a five-year project supporting communities to build peace by establishing community action groups that address security concerns in their neighbourhoods. Together with Somali Women Development Centre (SWDC) in Mogadishu, Somali Women Solidarity Organization (SWSO) in Kismayo and Isha Human Rights Organization (IHRO) in Baidoa, we set out to form ten of these groups – four in Mogadishu and three in both Kismayo and Baidoa respectively.

The groups, each made up of 20 members, act as champions for their communities’ safety. They serve three functions: they are contact points for people to raise their concerns, they are a platform to advocate for change, and most importantly, they challenge the traditional top-down militarised approach to security and justice, ensuring that people are spearheading change in their own communities.

“We know the people we chose”

The first step in the group formation process is to develop the criteria for member selection. In order to do so, we train our partners and staff on how to be sensitive to different conflict and gender dynamics, essentially helping to ensure the groups are fair, inclusive and represent a wide spectrum of Somali society. This allows for meaningful participation from women and minority groups, not only in numbers but also in roles and responsibility.

The member selection process comes next. Communities and authorities, with the support of Saferworld and partners, use a criteria developed collaboratively to find suitable candidates who have a history of commitment to community wellbeing, regardless of gender or status.  

“We know the people we chose,” says Abubakar Ahmed Addow, deputy district commissioner in Wadajir district, Mogadishu. “We are one community. The criteria included how they can communicate with the Somali people – how they read and write, how they can give advice to the people and can work on a voluntary basis. We looked for good-will and interest in the community”.

Getting to work

After the groups are set up there is a two-month period of training for the community members. To start with, they attend organisation management training to develop the group’s mandate and internal structure highlighting clear roles and responsibilities. Members also research the drivers of conflict in the areas where they live so they can understand the context they are working in. This is followed by training for communities on gender and conflict sensitivity and advocacy. We then facilitate sessions to support groups to develop a community action plan - where communities decide which safety issues they will tackle. They conduct bi-weekly meetings to discuss progress and plan ways forward on how to improve security.

In March 2018, the groups we helped set up began implementing their plans. They became the focal points for coordinating with security providers like the police to handle safety issues. In Mogadishu, SGBV was a major concern, with over 100 cases reported each month according to records. The community groups help survivors report their cases and gain access to formal justice, as well as provide access to psycho-social and medical support services.

Community groups in Kismayo identified the breakdown in community-police relationships as an urgent priority that needed to be addressed. The groups began organising regular community-police dialogues to discuss safety issues in their neighbourhoods and share contact details so they could keep in touch.

Not only do the groups work to address existing problems, but also to prevent them happening in the future. Every two months, the groups select one issue to focus their advocacy and awareness-raising efforts on. This has included SGBV, drug abuse and petty crime. It’s in these gatherings that the groups often find out about personal experiences of insecurity and abuse, and difficult conversations take place that challenge harmful norms. The group also comes up with projects to reduce insecurity. For example in Mogadishu, the community group successfully approached private companies to fund the installation of street lights in areas they identified as insecure due to a lack of proper lighting. Those areas are now well-lit and safer for vulnerable citizens.

Bumps in the road 

This process has had its share of challenges. Somalia is a male-dominated culture where women often don’t feel comfortable voicing their opinions and experiences, particularly around SBGV and justice. Similarly, community-led security is a new concept. “At first I was sceptical about the groups,” says Kafiya. “I thought if the police can’t address community issues then how will these people do it?”

There were also challenges around setting expectations – because of high unemployment in some locations, there was an expectation of compensation. But through lengthy dialogue and engagement, group members saw the benefits of the groups and began to work on a voluntary basis, as required in the selection criteria.

The project has gone one step further in Kismayo, where nine exemplary group members were selected to form a sub-group of advocates who work closely with the local government. They hope to one day act as spokespersons for the community’s security concerns at Jubaland state parliament.

The future role of these community groups is full of potential, as they gain more support and influence and receive further training. This month, they will update their action plans based on assessments that will explore the impact they’ve had so far, and take up any new concerns. Around the same time, a cross-country exchange workshop will take place in Mogadishu for representatives of the ten groups to share experiences so far. Back at home, they will continue their regular meeting throughout the year to continue helping to build peace in Somalia.  

As for Kafiya, she feels the groups are already making a difference. She went on: “All households in the IDP camp were given the contact details of community group members who can be reached when we have issues. They’ve been connecting us to the police and re-building the broken relationship. The groups understand and know the community, they are trusted.”

The restoring stable communities project in Somalia is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Photo: Community members join a bi-weekly CAF meeting in Kismayo. ©Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld