Bosasso — Somalia has been plagued by decades of woes - persistent conflict, waves of natural disasters and drought. While these crises make headlines, the country's embattled people - a quarter of whom have been uprooted - also face personal tragedies that are no less devastating.
Fadhumo*, aged 39, was forced to flee fighting in Somalia capital Mogadishu in 2008. Pregnant with her eighth child, she bundled up some clothes and took two of her seven children with her. They sought refuge in Bariga Bosasso settlement on the outskirts of the northern seaport, Bosasso, and Fadhumo soon set up a small grocery business nearby. Her sister and remaining children later joined them in the settlement.
But the relative stability they established was soon shattered. "One afternoon as I was going home from my grocery shop, I saw two men approaching me, but I thought nothing of it," recalled Fadhumo. " Suddenly, one of them accosted me and pushed me to the ground. I screamed my lungs out hoping someone would hear me and come to my help, but to no avail. I tried to fight them off but they were much stronger. They beat me viciously, breaking both my wrists. They raped me repeatedly without caring that I was pregnant."
Two passers-by managed to scare off her attackers. Fadhumo was carried home, bleeding profusely from her face and legs. She lost her unborn baby later that night. What followed were months of depression and trauma - a direct result of the rape and how it had affected her family, compounded by her inability to support them.
"I couldn't work as my hands hadn't healed. It wasn't easy seeing my children trying to get some money to take care of me," she said, her teary eyes staring into the distance. "It was even worse remaining in the same community as it constantly reminded me of what had happened. Everyone was talking about me. Some women would openly laugh at me while others would stay far away from me. I longed to move to another place, but I had nowhere else to go."
Gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence, is considered taboo by most of the Somali community. According to GRT, an Italian NGO and UNHCR partner in Somalia's Puntland region, many victims of this kind of violence remain hidden and distraught due to their painful experiences.
"A lot of stigma still exists for victims of sexual violence in Somalia, so many of these cases go unreported. We hear stories of how some go to the extent of suicide as they have been rejected by their families and relatives," said GRT project manager Eliana Irato. "It's even worse for a young girl who has yet to be married off; she could be stigmatized by the community and her own family because of the fear that she will never get married."
Annabel Mwangi, UNHCR's Protection Officer in Bosasso, agrees that internally displaced people (IDPs) are even more vulnerable to gender-based violence. "Just like women around the world, IDP women in Puntland are mothers, wives, orphans, widows - except they are forced to play these roles in extremely difficult conditions, which many of us cannot begin to imagine," she said. "These women often have to travel long distances in search of some form of income, along unsafe routes, at risk of being subjected to various forms of violence, knowing it is the only way to provide one daily meal for their children."
GRT works with 35 focal points selected from within the IDP settlements to raise awareness on gender-based violence. The NGO has created a support phone line (Layka Cawinada) that women can call to report cases or to get information about gender-based violence. This takes into consideration survivors' need for confidentiality and their difficulties in accessing services directly, and creates a trusting relationship between them and social workers. Women who have survived such acts of violence are also taken through a holistic support program that involves counselling and vocational trainings to enable their full social and psychological rehabilitation.
Besides helping survivors with coping mechanisms, UNHCR and partners like GRT are also offering practical prevention initiatives. The refugee agency works to improve livelihood opportunities for displaced women and reduce their vulnerability to gender-based violence.
With partial funding from the Italian Development Cooperation, GRT and UNHCR focus on the protection of almost 50,000 internally displaced Somalis in 26 settlements in Bosasso.
Meanwhile, Fadhumo is still on the road to recovery. She has started a support group with five other women in Bariga Bosasso settlement, where they have a saving scheme to boost each of their livelihood activities. Fadhumo has also re-established her business with help from GRT.
She is certain of what needs to be done: "We should stop this crime from getting to our young and beautiful girls. They shouldn't be afraid of walking freely in their communities. More so, we should report these cases to our authorities so that those found guilty can be dealt with."
Somalia generates the world's third-highest number of refugees, after Afghanistan and Iraq. Decades of conflict and the current drought has driven 700,000 Somali refugees into the region. In addition, nearly 1.5 million Somalis are displaced within their own country.
*Name changed for protection reasons