The collapse of the national state structure and the eruption of civil conflict in Somalia in 1991 forced Zahra, Deputy Manager of Mogadishu Airport Custom sat that time and married to a former pilot, to f lee Somalia with her five infant children for Tanzania in 1992.
In 2000, when many felt it was not yet safe to return, Zahra returned to her mother land. “I had to do something”, she says, and “someone had to be around to witness what was going on in order to tell others”. She remembers having realized that while her children had the opportunity to go to school there were many Somali children who didn’t. She first started a Community Based Organization – HINNA, raising funds to open up hospitals and schools and engaging in dialogue with war lords to put down their guns and pick up the pen – as she puts it. Later, she would found the Somali Women’s Development Centre (SWDC) where she currently works as the legal advisor and director.
The Somali Women’s Development Centrein Mogadishu is one of the few civil society organizations struggling to overcome war and rebuild their community and country. SWDC promotes women’s human rights and women’s access and participation in politics and decision making in pursuit of democracy and the development of society. Their field of work includes emergency response to sexual violence, legal aid and outreach activities and education for girls on health issues like fistula. They coordinate with multiple other organizations to provide holistic care and convince families to bring their daughters to the AMISON hospital for surgery. They also mediate on behalf of women and clan elders.
As we meet the SWDC staff, one can’t help but notice their respect and admiration for Zahra; her interaction with them is motherly. But also policemen, security forces and militia make way for her. Fondly referred to as Mama Zahra by many around her, the soft spoken lady exudes passion for her work and her country. Not a woman of many words or of grand phrases, her appearance is humble – it is her clear determination and history of achievements that demand respect.
To many young women, Zahra is a mentor and a mother. She offers internship opportunities to the best performing female students from the Faculty of Law at the university, who in turn become paralegals at SWDC. Despite her demanding tasks and busy schedule, Zahra still finds the time to volunteer. She would not miss her weekly visit to the shelter for blind children a place she has helped found and fundraises for from the Somali diaspora and others. Her strong relationship with the blind children is evident each time she steps into the shelter and all the joyful voices shout out her name.
Being a woman in somalia
The war led to forced migrations andleft many families without a father or eldest son, placing the main responsibility on women to provide forthe day-to-day needs of their families. Some are running small businesses and selling basic commodities. Despite the limitations for women, they play a vital role in the development of their community. They have been heads of households and breadwinners for the last two decades and are very important in the development of the country. But there is more to it. “Women are always receptive to peace and stability”, Zahra says. “They are mothers who care for their families and they raise children”. Figures endorse Zahra’sstrategy to support women. The country has the highest under-five mortality rate in the world1 and for many factors Somalia is considered to be one of the worst places on Earth to be a woman.
Many of Somalia’s internally displaced people are concentrated in urban centres. About 400,000 IDPs2 are estimated to live in Mogadishu in make shift houses made from sticks and plastic bags, without electricity supply, with limited running waterand poor sanitary conditions. In the congested settlements, without access tohealthcare or education, women try to enable one meal per day for their extended families by collecting firewood, doing laundry and carrying water for people who have a little money to spare. IDPs also face serious protection challenges, including forced evictions by landowners and aid diversion by corrupt camp gatekeepers. Womenand girls are particularly exposed to sexual and gender-based violence.
“The challenges women face here cannot be written in a page”, Zahra knows. Somali women suffer from a lack of education due to cultural barriers and a lack of political andeconomic participation. They suffer from harmful traditional practices such as FGM and forced and early marriage. Added to this is the ongoing threat and trauma of rape.
This particular form of misogyny has become rampant and due to a weak formal justice system, perpetrators often live in impunity. A sexual-violence task force formed by the Transitional Federal Government som time ago is the first form of limited recognition of the crisis in Somalia. Improving access to justice will be key here, as women are frequently harassed and arrested, if they report rape to authorities.
Civil society organizationsin Somalia act within tremendous challenges and under serious risks. These include receiving threatsfromdifferent actorswithintheSomali context, particularly when working onlegal aid provision and counseling for the victims of sexual violence or any issues concerning women’s rights. A most worrying moment was when defending the case of the journalist Abduaziz and Lul Isman, a rape victim, Zahra and her colleagues felt serious threatsagainst their lives. “But we have already sacrificed ourselves to defending our people”, she ponders, and moves on with her work.
Leading by example
Born in 1952 in a family of five boys and two girls, Zahra’s dad, a policeman, endeavored toeducate all hischildren, and put the girls in even better schools than the boys. Years ahead it would be the dire situation in her country especially the suffering of women that would compel Zahra to go back to school, aged almost fifty. In 2005, Zahra graduated with a degree in International and Sharia Law from the Faculty of Law, Somalia University, to enhance her work in the advocacy of women’s rights.
Zahra believesthat her Islamic faith has encouraged her to persevere and continue her work. According to her, Islam encourages helping the poor, protecting the vulnerable, preventingsexual violence, avoidingharmfultraditional practicesand building peace and security. She encourages other women to embrace their faith and practice what it says. “Women in this region have an obligation to assume strong roles and to support the women and the girls in their societies.”
Zahra brightensup talking about the future citing that many Somalis from the diaspora are coming back to rebuild their country. She encourages her own children to return as well. “It is a ground-breakingsuccess in history that we have got two significant ministries lead by women, even though the quota of women’s participation in the MPswas not reached yet. I believe that narrows the gap between women and the political activity in our country”, Zahra says.
Three weeksafter my return, Somalia’sSupreme Court complex wasbombed inMogadishu, andtwo prominent lawyersworking withZahrawhoadvocated forwomen victims of sexual violence were killed. The situation remains unpredictable.
Somalia is a country in transition, but there is reasonfor hope. There are women like Zahra - who continue undeterred tocounterbrutalitywithextending helptoothersand exercising her rights.
1 http://w w w.ref intl. org/where-we- work /africa/somalia
2 sur veyed by the International Committee of the Red Crescent, 2012; http://w w w.irinnews. org/repor t /96686/ SOMALIA- Mogadishu-IDPs- suffer-ex tor tion- eviction