Women’s rights and participation in Somalia’s 2021 elections

10 December 2020 Women’s rights and participation in Somalia’s 2021 elections

On the final day of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (GBV), we turn the spotlight on how women’s rights organisations (WROs) in Somalia are working towards meaningful participation and women’s rights in the context of upcoming elections in 2021. Women’s participation is crucial to tackling GBV and other forms of violence in Somalia and elsewhere. This is because currently Parliament is discussing the Sexual Offences Bill and because WROs are the main and first responders of GBV and crises in Somalia, including COVID-19.  
We spoke to Zahra Mohamed Ahmed, Chief Executive Director of the Somali Women Development Centre (SWDC), and Shukria Dini, Founder & Executive Director of Somali Women’s Study Centre (SWSC), both based in Mogadishu, about how donors, INGOs and others working on women, peace and security in Somalia can support them during this crucial time. 

What is the current situation for women’s rights and participation in Somalia? 
Zahra: First, when the war erupted [in 1991], it caused men to cease working, and this resulted in families collapsing. Some women fled with their children while others were not able to escape and remained in the country. Some women were taking care of their children, but they wanted to leave a legacy for their country, and so they mobilised themselves and established community-based organisations.  
[After the war], we sought recovery from the mayhem. Women participated on three fronts: socially, economically and politically. Although our [political] representation was small in the Parliament, today we are in a better position. We started with a Parliament with zero women members of Parliament and in 2012 we achieved 12 per cent, which was a success. Back then it was only one traditional leader who made the decision [to select members of the Parliament]*. We worked to increase the number [of electors] to 51 people, instead of one man. So in the 2016 [election], the number of women [in Parliament] doubled. This shows you that we have been moving forward. However, there is a problem in the judiciary, and when women are not represented in the decision-making process, it is the men who always make decisions at state and federal levels. This is why we advocated for the 30 per cent women’s quota [in the 2017 elections], which we are now trying to fulfil and advocating for it to be adopted in the Constitution.  
Shukria: Women’s rights in Somalia have been deteriorating due to the absence of strong legal frameworks, political commitment from all levels of governments in Somalia, and a lack of sufficient funding to address the root causes of gender inequality. COVID-19 is also negatively affecting the work of women’s organisations and activists in Somalia. In order to protect and promote women’s rights, we need laws and strong institutions that will enforce such laws. Somali women’s organisations and civil society have been excluded by political actors at Federal and Federal Member State levels from actively participating in the current dialogues and preparations for the 2020-2021 elections, which have shaped the time and modalities of the upcoming national election – nor is there a space for us to raise our concerns. One of the main challenges impeding women’s participation is the high registration fees for candidates, which affect women’s participation and representation; as all candidates running for the Upper House must pay a fee amounting US$ 20,000 and US$ 10,000 for the Lower House. Women activists and organisations have been advocating for the reduction of these registration fees, yet they remain in place.

Elections in Somalia are coming and represent a big opportunity to advance women’s rights and meaningful participation.  What are your main priorities for this election?  
Shukria: Somali women’s priorities are to actively participate in the upcoming election. They want all barriers to be removed so that they can adequately participate in all electoral commissions at all levels, and in the political processes. An indirect election model will be held with 101 delegate voters for each candidate. Through this model, clan elders will [play critical] roles and will make it extremely difficult for women candidates to get votes of the majority of the delegates and it will be costly for them. It remains to be seen if women will be given adequate representation in the delegate voters (101). Furthermore, we also want more women to be included in all electoral committees. Our priority is not only to secure women's 30 per cent quota participation in both houses, but also to have 30 per cent of women in the electoral commission at all levels.
Zahra: I am happy that we are heading to elections, but I am afraid that male Somali politicians will want to go backwards because that is in their interest. In the upcoming election, we are working towards fulfilling the 30 per cent [women’s quota] and striving for 30 per cent to be youth [delegates to the electoral colleges], who can focus on the future. I believe if we can secure this 60 per cent of delegates, the chances of women being elected to parliament will be much higher and will enable us to fill our 30 per cent quota, or maybe even exceed it. The remaining 40 per cent could be businesspersons, religious leaders and academics. Therefore, we are more optimistic this year. We want to hold trainings for the delegates and candidates to ensure qualified women and youth have a better chance of getting elected, as well as strengthening the election monitoring.

What are women’s organisations and networks doing to achieve these opportunities and what are the main obstacles they face?  
Zahra: Six months ago, civil society organisations across the country, from Puntland to Kismayo, formed a united civil society. The reason we did this is to work for our country collectively and not to wait for donors to come and help us. We made progress and even met opposition [figures] and the President. [However] NGOs and the UN focus on GBV responses, - most of the funding goes to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and shelter - and very little funding contributes to women’s rights and participation advocacy. As Somalis, we agreed not to wait for donor funding… we do not want funding to prevent from us what we can do by ourselves.  
Shukria: There are vibrant women’s organisations and networks that are addressing social, economic and political barriers facing women and girls in Somalia. One of the main challenges we face is that we do not get adequate financial support from donors. Women organisations are the least funded organisations. Our projects are one year-long – maximum two years. How can you empower women with limited funds and short-term projects? 2020 is the worst year for women’s organisations due to the COVID-19, the lockdown and other measures affecting our advocacy work at a crucial time, including access to [decision makers] and target stakeholders. Our funding has also decreased, only a few lucky organisations have a maximum of three projects. Most of the other women-led organisations have one project and when that ends, there is nothing you can do.  
The space we are operating in is also increasingly becoming very challenging. The governments at Federal & Federal Member States levels tell the donors they should deal with them directly, because they are the legitimate ones. There is this perception held by all [Somali] governments that civil society are receiving most of the donors’ funds. Yet women’s organisations and networks are responding to the needs of vulnerable populations and they should see us and CSOs as allies, not foes.

How can donors and INGOs support women’s organisations during this time? 
Zahra: We need to focus our attention on the fact that the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic are not over… we are advocating schools to reopen to get children out of their homes so women can go to work. We want international organisations to create jobs for women and sustainable projects for the youth who completed university education and are unemployed. Our coastline is very long, and dams can be built for agricultural development. 
Beyond that, donors and INGOs need to support women’s organisations in this crucial time, which presents opportunities for us to advance gender equality, women’s rights and women’s participation in the long-term. For this, core and long-term financial support from donors is key, equal partnerships from INGO would be instrumental, and more opportunities to set our priorities and agendas will allow us to make meaningful impact.   
Shukria: COVID-19 affected women’s organisations work and enabled them to do things differently. Donors and INGOs need to provide emergency, unrestricted and flexible funds to women’s organisations so that we can efficiently respond to the specific needs of women and girls. Donors and INGOs need to design their funding with the inputs of women’s organisations. Donors and INGOs should also support areas that women’s organisations prioritise, such as building community’s resilience, economic empowerment and livelihoods, addressing harmful cultural practices and promoting women’s participation and representation in the upcoming election and overall in formal decision making processes in Somalia.

If you want to know more about our mapping of the challenges and opportunities facing women’s organisations in Somalia, read SWDC’s and Saferworld’s report and learn more about how to support them during this time.


*Before 2016 members of parliament were selected by a small group of clan elders, who were all men. As such only men got selected. In 2016 electoral colleges, each comprising of 51 delegates, were established for each parliamentary seat. Hence, candidates for each seat had to win a majority of the 51 delegates to join parliament. This new model enhanced women’s chances to get elected, doubling their share of parliamentary seats. In the upcoming 2021 elections the electoral colleges have been further expanded and now comprise of 101 delegates.