Hargeisa — Stiffer penalties and reduced reliance on traditional justice systems could help end the rising incidence of rape in the self-declared republic of Somaliland, say officials.
"We estimate that about 5,000 rape cases may have taken place in Somaliland in 2012, compared to 4,000 cases in 2011," Abdi Abdillahi Hassan, the director of social affairs in Somaliland's Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, told IRIN.
"There is no data of gender-based violence rates in Somaliland," he added.
Records at the Sexual Assaults Referral Centre (SARC), also known as Baahi-Koob, of the Hargeisa Group Hospital in Somaliland's capital, also indicate a rising trend.
"The centre received 195 rape cases in 2012, compared to 130 cases in 2011," Ahmed Dahir Aden, SARC's director, told IRIN. The reported cases are mainly from areas near Hargeisa.
Few rape victims seek medical care; those who do arrive well after the attack. "Many women do not reach Baahi-Koob centre in the first 24 hours of the rape incident, and consequently the evidence of the rape cannot be easily found by the medical team," Aden said.
The extent of rape in Somaliland remains difficult to measure, with most cases going unreported or being resolved between families.
While rape is punishable with a jail term of five to 15 years in Somaliland, cases are often settled outside the courts by traditional leaders, with perpetrators typically paying compensation or marrying the victim.
For example, the perpetrator's family can give some amount to the victim's family, explained Faiza Yusuf Ahmed, the chairperson of the Somaliland Youth Development Association (SOYDA).
"In addition to that, sometimes the case may proceed before the court and the perpetrator may be sentenced to imprisonment.
However, the perpetrator may also pay an amount relative to his prison term [a fine], and he will be released.
For this reason, if we want to decrease rape, we need to stop both the traditional ways of solving rape cases and the buying [off of] the term of imprisonment," she said.
The acting Somaliland attorney general, Aden Ahmed Mouse, concurred: "One of the problems that we are now facing is the traditional way of solving [rape cases].
For example, the families of the victim and the perpetrator may agree before a public notary and demand that the court release the perpetrator.
And the public prosecutor can do nothing because the victim is here and she is telling the court that she has stopped the case against the perpetrator."
Explaining the payment of fines by perpetrators, Mouse said: "Sometimes, the perpetrators are sentenced to a term less than the term in the penal code, after the judge considers how the rape case took place and the circumstances.
For example, a perpetrator may be sentenced to five years. He may stay in prison for two-and-a-half years and later he may apply to buy the remaining [time]... The fine equivalent for one year in prison [for a rape charge] is 2,740,500 Somaliland shillings [about US$421.61]. But we are now thinking of stopping this," he said.
Call for stiffer penalties
Efforts are underway to stiffen the penalties for rape.
"We stopped [granting] bail to the perpetrators of rape. We have even proposed to the parliament to pass a law [to] increase the punishment for rape [to] include the death penalty," said Mouse.
A police official with the criminal investigations department, who preferred anonymity, said: "As the police, it is our duty to catch [criminals] and send them to trial, including the rape assault cases.
But of course sometimes police officials accept it when the two sides [the victim and the perpetrator] agree to solve the case between them."
The chairperson of Somaliland's National Human Rights Commission (SLNC), Fathiya Hussein Jahur, called for a greater role by the formal justice system.
"The human rights commission has already made contact with the chief justice, the attorney general and the police commander to stop the interventions of the elders. We believe that if the defendants face punishment for their crimes, rape will decrease," said Jahur.
In an April workshop, traditional leaders, the police and judges agreed to establish stiffer penalties for rape, stop traditional resolution mechanisms and increase public awareness about the effects of sexual violence, she said.
"As a traditional leader, I believe that the traditional way of solving rape cases encourages the increasing rapes.
For this reason, I am appealing to the traditional leaders to accept the justice and the criminal procedures of the courts," Ahmed Iman Warsame told IRIN.
"I believe it is forbidden to rape a women, in any law, whether it is the Somaliland constitution or the Islamic Sharia."
Child rape is common too.
"The last case we processed was of an IDP - internally displaced - child in the state house area of Hargeisa. The child was only six years old and a [male] relative raped her. The case went to the court and he was sentenced to six years in prison," said SOYDA's Ahmed.
Nimo Hussein Qawdhan, the deputy health minister added, "It is shameful that our hospitals receive a raped child daily."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]