23 August 2013

Somalia: Easy Prey - Victims of Sexual Violence in Somalia

Photo: irin
Refugee Camp in Dabaad Eastern Kenya

Civil war raged in Somalia for more than 20 years. Peace is slowly returning but rape is still commonplace, especially in refugee camps in Mogadishu. Aid agencies help women to break their silence.

The walls are lined with fabric, in the center are two couches. The atmosphere is warm and cosy. But when Sharifa Mohamed came here for the first time four months ago, she noticed none of this. The 28-year-old was too wrapped up in her own feelings of desperation. Today, she still finds it hard to talk about what happened to her. Sharifa is again sitting in the comfortable room set up by the Somali aid organization "Save Somali Women and Children." It is only here that Sharifa feels able to talk about what happened one night, four months ago. Her husband came home late, but had managed to earn some money. "I went out to buy something for the children to eat," Sharifa says softly. "Suddenly three men appeared and dragged me into a dark corner."

A helpless victim

One man raped her, another held her tightly and beat her while the third held her mouth shut. She fought hard but the men were too strong. Ninety minutes later they finally let her go. She returned to her hut in tears. "I had strong pains in my abdomen and back and I felt I had been abused," Sharifa recalled. "The pain was so strong I couldn't get up for some time."

Most Somalis have little confidence in the police force

Sharifa's husband has stood by her, something that cannot be taken for granted in many countries. When his wife arrived home that night in a state of great distress, he was full of rage and ran out to try and catch the three men. But they were long gone. Neither he nor Sharifa thought of going to the police. After more than 20 years of political instability and no proper government, the Somali police force is barely able to function. For a year now the country has had a legitimate head of state in the person of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and there has been financial aid from abroad, including Germany, to strengthen the police force. But it remains ineffective and corrupt. It does not feature in people's awareness as somewhere to turn to for help. And certainly not in an emergency.

Support from aid agencies

The next morning Sharifa saw three women close to her hut. "They were asking if everything was OK, whether we were satisfied with the security situation, if we had had a peaceful night or if we needed help," Sharifa says.

The three worked for the aid organization which set up the room where Sharifa is now sitting. She went with them and received medical and psychological treatment. "Save Somali Women and Children" provides help, including legal aid, for women who have become victims of violence. Fartuma Ibrahimi works for the organization which has been active in Mogadishu for about a year. It has been sought out by almost 1,300 women. "They are women of all ages, between four and 80," Fartuma says, adding: "It's not only girls who are abused, but also boys."

Jail sentence for rape victim

Most of the women live in one of the many camps in Mogadishu for displaced persons.

According to various estimates, up to 370,000 people still have no adequate housing but live in huts they have built themselves from wood, plastic sheeting, remnants of fabric and cardboard. They have no way to defend themselves against often armed aggressors. Sharifa Mohamed also lives with her husband in one of these huts.

Generally the perpetrators are not prosecuted. Partly because many women do not reveal what has happened to them as talking about rape is taboo. Even if they do press charges, the judicial system does little. Sometimes it even acts against the victims. Earlier this year a Somali court sentenced a rape victim to one year in prison. The woman had accused state security forces of being responsible for the crime but the court ruled that she was guilty of insulting state institutions. A journalist who reported on the case was also sentenced to jail. Both were only released after international protests. Since then, says Fartuma Ibrahimi, rape victims are even more scared of confiding in anyone.

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InFocus

Somali Displaced Face Sexual Violence

Refugee Camp in Dabaad Eastern Kenya

Though peace is slowly returning to the country, rape is still commonplace, especially in refugee camps in Mogadishu. Read more »