The impact of Somalia’s civil war on its people is apparent to this day. Since 1991, despite significant progress in governance, communities continue to deal with the after effects of conflict on top of new safety concerns. Saferworld is working in partnership with the Somali Women’s Development Centre (SWDC) and the Somali Women Solidarity Organization (SWSO) to address these insecurities through community action forums that amplify the voice of the people, particularly the marginalised, and help build peace from the bottom up. We spoke to six community members who have been impacted by this work:
Salma*, 45, is a mother of nine children and an internally displaced person (IDP) living in Kismayo, Somalia. She sells homemade sweets to earn a small income and she has joined a community action forum to address problems faced by her community.
“Initially during the civil war we moved from one region to another in Somalia. Then we fled to Kenya and settled in Utange refugee camp located between Malindi and Mombasa. I’ll never forget our experience at the border when we met those who we were fleeing from. With us were injured people, women, children, even leaders. We were attacked from all sides. All injured people and men were killed; only women and the elderly were spared. In Kenya, one night the camp was burnt to the ground. We ran outside in our night dresses; all our belongings got burnt. The camp was burnt again for a second and third time.
In 1995, we returned to Somalia and settled in Kismayo because there was relative calm. When we came back, we couldn’t afford to rent a house, so we were forced to a build temporary home, made of plastic canvas.
In Kenya, our basic needs were taken care of by humanitarian organisations. In Somalia, though our security here is good, we are not given much attention. Before 2017, life was risky because of fighting between different militias, but now our conditions have really improved. Still, there is robbery during the night when we are sleeping; thieves steal whatever they can lay their hands on including clothes and food. Some thieves will even rape women and girls at knifepoint. The houses we live in are not secure.
When I first heard about the action forum, I thought it was a joke or just a rumour. I told them that not even the police force could guarantee our safety. We didn’t have a government for 27 years, so we are used to resolving issues by ourselves.
"We didn’t have a government for 27 years, so we are used to resolving issues by ourselves."
I’ve learned that the forum is a good community policing association. They carry out awareness raising [on what issues are causing conflict and how to resolve it peacefully] in the refugee camp and people are now well informed on violations including rape, physical assault, and denying access to children. The forum carries out seminars in different camps and for different groups, such as women, elders and youth. Women are naturally shy and will only share crucial information about a crime to other women – so the action forum has also successfully advocated for the inclusion of women in the police service, and even in the courts to handle women’s cases.
As a member of the forum now, I am the one who usually organises people to attend the seminars in my camp. Those who attend disseminate the information to others. Women now understand that they need to be involved in politics.”
Abyan* is a widowed mother of six children living in Tarbush IDP camp, Mogadishu. She was supported by a community action forum to take a property dispute to court and get justice for her and her son. Access to fair and accountable justice is often a challenge for women in Somalia due to gender norms and tradition that encourages informal dispute resolution focused on social harmony rather than individual rights, and in which women are usually represented by male relatives.
“I left my matrimonial home after I was divorced by my husband because of conflict between my children and his family. My husband later passed away and people in the neighbourhood told me to take my son back to his late father’s house because he was the heir to the property. But my husband’s niece was living in the house and she refused to leave, claiming my son was illegitimate. Fortunately all the neighbours were on my side. I was advised to take the case to the court but they asked for a bribe of $3000 if I wanted the house returned to me. Here women are not given their rights in most instances.
We were frustrated and helpless and did not know where to go. But at the police station, I met Abdi*, a member of a community action forum who was there for another case. I knew him but didn’t know what he did. I told my story to him and he took our details and promised to help us without charge.
Abdi helped us to take the case to the district court, which then referred us to the higher court which ruled in our favour.
We were able to return to the house and now we are comfortable. The house has six rooms, we live in two and rent out the rest to get some more income. I am also thinking of starting a business in one of the rooms. My son is happy. He wants to be a soldier like his father when he grows up.
"The truth is, peace can only be achieved by giving justice to the oppressed and telling the truth about the oppressor.”
I appreciate the community action forum’s activities: providing fair justice and raising awareness to people about processes and laws related to community conflict. The truth is, peace can only be achieved by giving justice to the oppressed and telling the truth about the oppressor.”
Abdullahi*, 54, is a student of Islamic law at Kismayo University and is part of the justice committee of a community action forum who get together for bi-weekly meetings.
“Somalia has been in a state of ruin for the past 27 years, and disputes between people and clans are many due to a lack of government. We have gone through many stages as far as justice systems are concerned. There were times when there were no courts and people resolved their disputes under trees. There were also times when community action forum were not in existence.
As a member of the forum, I contribute to the agendas of the different meetings. I am an elder who understands the context of the region. Most disputes we deal with are related to land, wealth and properties. Disputes in society are normal, so we do awareness raising on the importance of justice and working together, identifying challenges, and looking for solutions. Culturally, Somalis are open and aware of each other because [we] come together in tea rooms to share information.
Everyone has a role to play in society. Young people, women and men all have roles to play. Islamic law gives an example that societies are like a house. If a member of the house, like the mother, is taken out, there will be a hole in the house. She is the pillar of the family and society.
I would like to improve as a person and educate my children; I would like to help the community because it is my responsibility and I will be rewarded by God.”
Hodan*, 38, is a police officer based in the central police station in Kismayo. She is also a mother of six children.
“During the civil war, you cannot imagine the hardship I went through while moving from one place to another."
“During the civil war, you cannot imagine the hardship I went through while moving from one place to another. We fled to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and we were away for seven years. We came back when there was relative stability; I came back because I’d left my mother and grandparents, but fled again to Dadaab refugee camp for six years when religious militias captured the town. I didn’t have children when fleeing the first time but I did during the second fleeing. I even delivered my last born in the refugee camp.
I’ve been working in the police force for one year and six months. In Kismayo central police station, there are 39 male officers and 3 female officers. There are many challenges working as a woman in the police force.
There was a case where a woman reported a case concerning her husband. The husband refused to allow the woman to narrate her case and he even took the pen I was using to write about the case because I threatened to arrest him. I had to call for reinforcement from my male colleagues and he was arrested. I am sure he wouldn’t have behaved in this way if it was a man handling his case.”
Hodan works with the community action forums in Kismayo to strengthen relationships with the police and build trust. The forums encourage communities to report cases, and at the same time work with police to adopt transparent and accountable policing practices.
“I met a woman in one of the awareness raising seminars. She told me that she fears the police and has never thought of reporting cases to them. There are even incidences where people refuse to give water to security officers who are manning the neighbourhoods, because they are afraid that the officers may attack them in the night. I told [the woman] we are friendly and I even gave her my number and told her to call or text me whenever she needs help. We work really well with the community action forum and I thank them for facilitating the programmes.”
Asha*, 34, is a mother of eight children and a cleaner at a hospital in Mogadishu. In 2018, a community action forum helped her and her daughter access vital support services following a case of grievous sexual violence.
“I’ve lived here [in Mogadishu] since I was six years old but we’ve moved from one place to another because of violence. There are problems of frequent evictions, displacement and killings. There are many incidents of kidnapping children. Children are brought back dead or often without vital organs, so we usually keep our children indoors during the evenings.
One day, my daughter’s school friends came and asked me why she was not in class. I started looking for her. I was frightened; I feared I would be told she was dead.”
Asha discovered that her daughter had been kidnapped and raped by a man when she was on her way to evening school.
“When she [her daughter] came back, I did not ask her anything because she was so frightened. In the morning, she told me what had happened. I asked if she could identify the man and she told me she knew his name [as she had overheard someone calling him]. I reported him to the police and he was arrested but he denied ever seeing her.
It was when we took my daughter to the hospital for treatment that I met someone from the forum who told us he would connect us to an organisation that deals with violence against women. This is how I became involved with the community action forum. They helped us to get justice through legal aid and a fair trial. The perpetrator was jailed for six years and fined. However, his family are now intimidating us and trying to appeal the case. They don’t understand what we are going through. His relatives said I was just a woman whose work was to produce children and I should leave the issue to the elders. They even tried to bribe me with money, but I stood my ground and insisted that my daughter must get justice, formal justice.
The counselling [facilitated by SWDC] has helped her a lot. There were times when she could not even talk; she used to lock herself in the house and not eat well for days. My daughter is much better now. I appreciate the efforts of the forum; they have helped heal our wound and we would like them to stand with us until we get justice.”
Axmed*, 61, has worked in pharmaceuticals since his return to Mogadishu after being displaced during the civil war. He is now a community action forum member and is head of the justice and security committee.
“I came to Mogadishu in 1975. I was a businessman before the civil war began, selling spare vehicle parts in Hamar Weyne District. When the war began, my business collapsed. The security situation was bad. There was destruction and my houses were either taken by force or destroyed. We were forced to flee, not because of hunger, but because we were attacked by armed youths who raped women and tried to rob us of everything. I fled to a rural area and farmed there for three years.
During the violence, it was not easy to work or do business because of the chaos and militias who were roaming the neighbourhoods. They would loot and kill at will. It was the major clans who used to determine who does business. However, life is much better now. You can move around and work without fear because the security situation is more stable.
When I came back to Mogadishu, I was employed by a company that sells medicines to shops and kiosks. Now I balance my business and community action forum activities well. I was selected to be a member of the community action forum by the district administration but people were initially sceptical because they could not understand the programme we were spearheading.
"Security is the foundation of life. Without security, nothing is possible: no work, no education or health."
In the future, we would like to be supported with office space, relevant equipment and financial aid to effectively perform our duties, now that the communities are reliant on our services. Security starts from the neighbourhood and is built upwards to the district, regional and national level. Security is the foundation of life. Without security, nothing is possible: no work, no education or health. I hope we will achieve a peaceful environment in the future.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.
Photos: © Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld