Nairobi — Somalia's new cabinet should urgently adopt meaningful reforms to confront rampant sexual violence, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Over the past year, women and girls endured high levels of rape and sexual abuse, including by government soldiers, in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.
"Many women and girls in Mogadishu live in constant fear of rape," said Liesl Gerntholtz, women's rights director at Human Rights Watch. "The Somali government's public commitments have not materialized into better protection for women and support for victims."
The 72-page report, "'Here, Rape is Normal': A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia," provides a roadmap for the government and its international donors to establish a comprehensive strategy to reduce rape, provide survivors with immediate and urgent assistance, and develop a long-term approach to end these abuses. The report focuses on improving prevention, increasing access to emergency health services, ensuring justice, legal and policy reform, and promoting women's equality.
For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 women in Mogadishu who survived rape, with some of them experiencing assaults by multiple perpetrators on more than one occasion. All the cases took place since August 2012 when the new Somali Federal Government took office.
The incidents occurred in the Benadir region, which includes Mogadishu, an area primarily under government control and where resources have been invested to improve security and rebuild government institutions, including the judiciary and health services.
Armed assailants, including members of state security forces, have sexually assaulted, raped, shot, and stabbed numerous women and girls. Women and girls displaced by war and famine from their homes throughout the country are particularly vulnerable to abuse both inside internally displaced persons camps and as they walk to market, tend to their fields, or forage for firewood, Human Rights Watch said.
Lack of justice for sexual violence remains the norm in Somalia, Human Rights Watch said. Shamso (all names are pseudonyms for security), 34, who was gang-raped in her makeshift home in a displaced persons camp, described to Human Rights Watch the pervasive climate of impunity that fuels the abuse: "They took turns. The men didn't hurry because mostly women live in the camp and are no threat to them. During the attack, one of them told me, 'You can tell anyone that we did this, we're not scared."
The United Nations (UN) reported nearly 800 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in Mogadishu alone for the first six months of 2013, although the actual number is likely much higher. Many victims will not report rape and sexual assault because they lack confidence in the justice system, are unaware of available health and justice services or cannot access them, and fear reprisal and stigma. When Human Rights Watch asked one survivor why she did not report being raped, she shrugged: "Rape is a frequent occurrence in Somalia. Here, rape is normal."
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), about one-third of victims of sexual violence in Somalia are children under 18 years of age.
While the government has pledged to "comprehensively" address sexual violence "as a matter of priority," these commitments have thus far brought about little, if any, change. The new government needs to take urgent and concrete steps to address the pervasive problem of rape, particularly among displaced communities, Human Rights Watch said.
The government response
In early February 2014, Human Rights Watch met with various government officials in Mogadishu, including the new minister of women and human rights development and members of the president's policy unit, who reaffirmed the government's commitment to combatting sexual violence. In particular, the officials said they would be revising the government's draft national gender policy to include specific provisions to address sexual and gender-based violence.
Human Rights Watch called on the Federal Government of Somalia to take serious measures to prevent security force personnel and others from committing sexual violence and to hold perpetrators accountable. As a top priority, the government should take all necessary actions to ensure victims who report sexual abuse do not face retaliation by government security forces and intelligence services, as occurred in three high-profile cases in 2013.
"Somalia's government faces daunting challenges given the scope of the abuse and the extensive measures needed to address it," Gerntholtz said. "So instead of targeting victims who dare to speak out, the government should focus on prosecuting perpetrators, including members of the security forces."
Years of conflict have left Somali medical services and the justice system, including police and the courts, profoundly ill-equipped to support and assist victims of sexual violence, Human Rights Watch said. As a result, women and young girls face what the UN's independent expert on human rights in Somalia refers to as "double victimization" - first the rape or sexual assault itself, then failure of the authorities to provide effective justice or medical and social support.
Maryam, a 37-year-old single mother who was gang-raped in her makeshift shelter, was the only survivor Human Rights Watch interviewed who attempted to file a police report. The police officers at the station humiliated her after she bled from injuries sustained during the rape.
"Before they let me go, they told me I had to wash the floor where I was bleeding," she said. "I sat down, they gave me a brush and I cleaned the floor." She never returned to the police station to pursue the case or report a second gang rape three months later.
Other women described the continuing economic impact that rapes have on their lives and how the government and donor community could help. "The challenge for women in Somalia is not just the violence," said Sahra, who was stabbed and raped in July while collecting firewood. "Now the manual labor that I did before I was raped, I am not strong enough to do it anymore. We need more programs that give us capital to start an alternative business."
Human Rights Watch called on Somalia's government to take a number of crucial steps.
These include deploying a sufficient number of competent, trained police, including female officers, to provide security for displaced communities; ensuring that health and social services can provide adequate psychological, social, economic, and medical support to women and girls recovering from violence; and promoting gender equality through education, women's political, social, and economic equality, and women's political participation.
The challenges that the government faces are enormous and will need the help of the international community, Human Rights Watch said.
International donors have pressed the Federal Government of Somalia, including through the Somali Compact endorsed in September, to give priority to women's rights. Donors have leverage and need to make it clear that supporting both short and long-term measures to address sexual violence against women is crucial for Somalia's development.
"Donor countries should press Somalia's government to ensure that the plight of rape survivors is a priority of reform efforts," Gerntholtz said. "And then the donors need to step forward and help make those reforms happen."