Role of Women in Peacekeeping in Somalia

Role of Women in Peacekeeping in Somalia

Women have an important role to play in peacekeeping and resolving societal conflicts. After all, in their traditional roles, women are already expected to negotiate agreements within families, as heads of households, as community members and increasingly, as peace activists.

This paper examines the role that women have played in building and keeping peace in Somalia. It looks at whether the participation of women in the peace process leads to greater social recognition of women’s rights. It also examines which factors can become obstacles to the greater participation of women in peace-building and decision-making.

The first part of this paper looks at the status of women in Somalia, with a special focus on legal protections for women’s rights today. The second part then looks at how women’s organizations have participated in the peace-making and peace-building process. Special emphasis is given to the unconventional methods that Somali women have used to influence political policies, such as the utilization of kinship and personal connections and other methods of advocacy.

In the conclusion, this paper examines whether these roles in peace-building have resulted in the greater participation of women in public life. In Somalia, this paper shows that despite playing an invaluable role in bringing about peace, the gains for Somali women have been limited. For larger reforms to continue and for the building of true gender equality, women need access into the clan-based and regional political structures. Greater macroeconomic reforms, such as addressing concerns raised by privatization, would also improve the status of women in Somalia.

Finally, this paper argues that for the establishment of true gender equity, women should continue their work amid these challenging situations. Somali women had already initiated much reform, amid situations of famine, conflict and war. Their pioneering work is still sorely-needed towards generating true structural reforms and ushering gender equity in Somalia.

Women’s status in Somalia

In many respects, Somalia reflects many traditional gender roles found throughout the African continent. Unlike many countries in the West, there still remains a very distinct division of labor between the men and women. Men are charged with being the economic breadwinner for their families (Gardner 22). They are generally seen as the heads of the family, and they have access to greater participation in political and other aspects of public life.

Women, in contrast, occupy revered positions in private life. The tasks of care-giving for the members of large, extended and blended families, often falls on the women. Somali women are also charged with taking care of the home and by extension, fields and livestock (Gardner 34). When they do participate in economic life, it is often as part of the underground economy.

Somalia is a patriarchal society, and this social organization informs the rights of women. The defining role of Somali women is therefore related to child-bearing, child-rearing and the myriad other tasks in the home. Within the nomadic and agricultural structures of Somali economic life, the responsibilities of women are pre-defined (Gardner 62). Women live within these strictures, as the formal decision-making falls on the male head of the household.

These roles are defined quite early in a Somali girl’s life. Somali society takes extreme pride in family ties, and the behavior and honor of girls and women therefore reflect on their entire family. The importance of one’s natal family is further stressed by the cultural practice of keeping one’s surname instead of adapting that of the husband’s. Somali tradition dictates that a woman keeps her father’s surname, identifying her maiden family even after marriage (Gardner 61).

In many poor families, the birth of a female child is not a cause for celebration. Boys are the preferred children, since males are able to engage in paid labor.

Girls, on the other hand, can be seen as burdens or risks. If they engage in socially deviant behavior, girls can face severe punishment for bringing “shame” to their families (Mire). These punishments include the use of physical force. Slapping, beating and caning are commonplace

Unfortunately, this dynamic can change upon marriage, especially since polygyny is common in Somali society.

However, polyandry is strictly forbidden, as are sexual relations outside marriage.

Additionally, while Somali law allows daughters to inherit property, they can only inherit half the amount to which their brothers are entitled. Furthermore, in areas governed by traditional Muslim Shari’a laws, the families of female homicide victims are only entitled to half the compensation paid when the victim is male (U.S. Department of State). This is ostensibly because of the greater economic livelihood lost with the loss of a male family member.

While there can be significant differences between the lives of nomadic, rural and urban women, the gendered division of labor permeates all aspects of Somali society. Unlike their male counterparts, girls are not expected or encouraged to get an education. Boys often attend day schools, while girls are initiated into household chores and other tasks related to care-giving.

Somalia is not a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). There is also a distinct lack of legal instruments protecting the rights of women. For example, there are no minimum age laws concerning marriage, and young girls are routinely married off to much older men. There are no laws against spousal rape. Furthermore, while laws against rape do exist, they are difficult to enforce. In 2005, for example, there were no officially reports of rape in Somalia. However, many non-government organizations have reported rapes committed by police and militia. Also, as rapes occur in inter-clan conflicts, many rape victims are said to be refugees displaced due to civil war or members of minority clans (U.S. Department of State).

For the victims, the crimes of rape are further compounded by the way sexual relations outside marriage reflect upon the family. Family reactions could range from ignoring a girl’s rape to sustained discrimination due to her “impurity.” A rape victim also has virtually no access to protections against unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.

The practice of infibulation, more widely-known as female genital mutilation (FGM) is also widely-practiced in Somalia. While the practice is illegal, laws against FGM are also not widely-enforced. The lack of reliable statistics and cultural practices that value FGM make it difficult to diagnose the extent of this issue (UNIFEM).

In summary, even in the best of times, the lives of Somali women are governed by social strictures. They are charged with carving out lives within the strict social parameters of being considered second-class citizens. These strictures place severe limitations on women’s participation in public life.

Conflict and Somali women

The collapse of central government in Somalia in 1991 plunged the country into chaos. Fighting erupted among rival factions and clans. Thousands starved, as the international community scrambled to put together a humanitarian response. The fighting and resultant dislocation of thousands of Somalis affected women the hardest, due to their secondary positions and the patriarchal nature of Somali society.

After dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was deposed in 1991, there was a pronounced decrease in women’s participation in the public sphere. During Barre’s 22-year regime, women served in various public positions, such as the military, as ambassadors and in the judiciary. The visibility of women was severely cut down in the ensuing conflict (UNIFEM).

The civil unrest and famine have made it more difficult for women to regain their former positions. As food insecurity increased, women were placed in more vulnerable positions. They needed to venture further from the safety of their households to find food and other basic necessities. This in turn places women at greater risk for rape and other violent acts.

The absence of the central government also helped to usher in the growing influence of traditional Shari’a laws. By 1994, Shari’a courts were increasing their jurisdiction to go beyond traditional cases of civil and family law, to include criminal proceedings (UNIFEM). Many of these laws run counter to women’s interests. For example, a woman who commits adultery or has sexual relations outside marriage could be subject to death by stoning.

Somali women are also hard-hit by many indirect effects of civil unrest. In a country that never had a strong health system to begin with, Somalis are further hit by deteriorating health infrastructure. Women are at a further disadvantage, as Somalia already has one of the highest maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the world (UNIFEM).

In the growing civil conflict and amid the lack of a central government, clans have increasingly dominated Somali public life. The rise of clan politics also sparks additional dangers for women, who often become pawns and victims in inter-clan conflicts. Women are in danger of being assaulted and raped in the escalating clan violence.

The Somali conflict further eroded legal protections for the already-disadvantaged Somali women. There are currently three systems of law competing for dominance in Somalia, namely customary, civil and Shari’a law. Each legal system already offers inadequate protections for women, and there is the additional complication of contradictions. There are no interventions for women who face abuse or assault. Also, since the beginning of the conflict, there has been a dearth of women’s input and participation in public life (Security Council).

In Somali, war and civil conflict have resulted in a shrinking of opportunities for women in public life. Women are further burdened with threats of violence and difficulties with meeting their household and care-giving duties. The inadequate and conflicting protections offered by the various Somali legal systems further places women at risk.

Women’s role in peace-building

Given the strictures women face in both traditional and post-conflict Somali society, it is difficult to imagine how women could play an important role in peace-building and peace-keeping. However, this is precisely what Somali women and grassroots organizations have done. For example, a coalition of women’s groups successfully lobbied for official participation in the March 1998 Conference on National Reconciliation that was convened in Addis Ababa. The women’s participation contributed to the establishment of the Transitional National Council, which mandated the inclusion of a woman in each of the delegations from Somalia’s 18 regions (Jan 68). Unfortunately, the early promise of this agreement was dashed when the 15 of the 18 clan-based delegations refused to participate.

In between the 13 political conferences that were conducted in an effort to rebuild the Somali political system, women’s grassroots organizations participated by supplying humanitarian aid.

This participation included providing shelter and medical care to combatants, often at great personal risk. Many women brought clean drinking water to war-torn communities and restored schools (Jan 68-69).

They also filled in for absent personnel, such as nurses and teachers. Their actions brought a semblance of normalcy in difficult times.

These actions served to mitigate the conflict and promote chances for dialogue.

As stated earlier in the paper, Somali women are considered members of their father’s family and clan. Their children, however, were part of their husband’s clans. These ties placed Somali women in a unique position to build on their status as daughters, wives and mothers. The cross-clan connections presented Somali women with opportunities to promote inter-clan dialogue.

Towards this, an umbrella organization of 17 non-governmental organizations, many led by women, formed with the express purpose of coordinating peace activities (Jan 68-69).

By 2000, it became apparent that any lasting peace in Somalia would only come with the participation and agreement of Somalia’s numerous clans. The Somali National Conference, formally opened in May 2000 in the town of Arta, Djubuti, was composed of clan-based delegations (Jan 68-69). Partly due to their dual clan membership, many women were able to secure positions in the clan delegations. At least 50 women participated in the Arta Conference, and one woman was even appointed Vice Chair of the Charter Drafting Committee.

The resultant Arta agreement thus followed a power-sharing model, wherein major clans were ensured of the right to participate in national decision-making. In return for submitting to the limits of a national agreement, clans were also assured of protections to their political, economic and territorial autonomy. The Transitional National Charter (TNC) was adopted at the Arta Conference, as was the allocation of seats to members of major and minor clans (Jan 69). The establishment of the TNC was hailed as a significant step in the Somali peace process, one that was facilitated by the participation of women.

In addition to furthering the peace process, the female activists were also able to negotiate gains for Somali women. The female delegates campaigned for a 12% quota of women in the Transitional National Assembly (TNA), based on their status as a distinct and separate “clan.” (Jan 69). Such a request was reasonable, as the gendered division of labor permeated much of Somali society and therefore bound together many Somali women. After religious leaders and other male delegates raised fierce opposition, the female delegates turned to Djibouti for arbitration. Through the efforts of these female delegates, Somali women were able to secure 25 seats in the TNA (Jan 69). The delegates then divided these 25 seats among the major clans, further placing women in unique positions to build inter-clan alliances.

The emphasis on clan politics further decentralized Somali politics, placing women at greater risk. Organizations such as Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC) were even more important. The SSWC focused on activities oriented towards human rights, peace and development. By sponsoring micro-credit programs for women, the SSWC was able to facilitate meetings and mobilizations between women of different clans. Such meetings were invaluable in diffusing tensions between the clans. Furthermore, the SSWC was able to bring together some 120 women’s grassroots organizations in Somalia (UNIFEM).

Since the SSWC, many other grassroots and umbrella organizations banded together to agitate for peace as well as other aspects of women’s rights. The National Organization for the Development of Women and Children (NOW), for example, advises the current Somali Transitional National Government regarding the welfare needs of women. In a patriarchal society that sees men as heads of households, NOW focused attention on female-headed households. Another organization, the Women’s NGO Consortium (WONCO), provides assistance to poverty-stricken women and the displaced refugees. WONCO also tries to educate people regarding the dangers of infibulation (UNIFEM).

Even with the creation of the TNC and the seats allocated for women, women still faced an uphill battle for recognition and participation. Many clans, including important factions from the capital Mogadishu, refused to even participate in the Arta peace process. For the women of these clans, it was even more important for them to come up with creative forms of negotiation and participation.

This is especially true for women from areas of Somalia where clans relied on a combination of customary laws and strict Shari’a principles to resolve disputes, both of which generally prohibit women from participating in decision-making processes. Also, although the TNC allots seats for women, the Charter does not provide any stipulations for women’s participation in clan systems or within regional councils. Instead, religious leaders and male elders are often charged with conducting negotiations for parties in conflict.

Even within such strictures, however, many women have been able to make their influence felt. Groups such as the Coalition of Grassroots Women’s Organizations (CGWO) were able to raise their voice, with the help of international organizations. Through their work in building and staffing health clinics and providing potable water, Somali women gained the confidence of their communities. Based on this goodwill and trust, many grassroots women’s organizations were also able to challenge strict fundamentalist Shari’a interpretations of Islamic law. Some women, for example, questioned prohibitions against the education of girls, based on alternate interpretations of the Koran (Flanders).

In summary, Somali women have carved out niches to allow for participation in public life. Some of these niches have been created in official political capacities, such as the 25 seats allotted to women in the TNA.

However, in many cases, women needed to devise unconventional methods to exert their influence.


In the case of Somalia, the involvement and representation of women in the peace table resulted in the Arta convention and the TNC, the country’s only lasting peace charter. The participation of women also helped the delegates draft a Charter that expressed political commitment to women’s rights.

The TNC provided institutional frameworks to begin significant reform.

Even more significant, the fact that women from different regional clans were able to come together as a “sixth clan” highlighted the possibility of inter-clan cooperation. Initially, analysts believed that due to clan politics, it would be impossible to carve out a national country identity for Somalia. However, as the women have shown, it is quite possible to form alliances even across clans, provided that participants share key interests.

However, despite these promising starts, there are still issues with implementing all the provisions of the TNC and generating true reform. While the representation of women in the TNA is a good start, it is in danger of remaining a nominal gesture. Women’s grassroots organizations continue to bring attention to the plight of women in times of conflict. Individual women provide linkages between clans and strive to make an impact on policy-making. To ensure that their work is successful, women’s grassroots organizations, as well as the representatives in the TNA, need to address important challenges.

First, Somali women’s activists must remain vigilant. The allocation for women’s seats in the TNA was acclaimed as a landmark in Somali women’s rights.

However, there is a danger of losing momentum, and of falling into a complacency regarding women’s rights. It is therefore important for women’s groups to continue working towards greater gender equity in Somalia.

Second, as the failure of earlier charters has shown, any successful power-sharing schemes need to take into account the existing social and political structures of society. Previous charters failed because they imposed state-based power-sharing schemes in a country that was divided along clan lines. The inclusion of women, who can hold membership in two or more clans, provided important links on which to build greater, lasting alliances.

Third, aside from the formal political processes, there are many other chances to influence policy changes. Somali women, for example, have focused on the very necessary tasks of reconstruction communities in the wake of civil strife. As no one else had taken charge of these tasks, the grassroots organizations built much credibility and goodwill in the communities. This goodwill in turn gave the women’s organizations a platform to initiate social change.

In Somalia and other areas of conflict, women’s groups have shown how critical their work remains in the arenas of peacekeeping and peace-building. The inclusion of gender inequity issues in structural reform is key in building the foundations for a lasting peace. In the case of Somalia, whether women continue to provide input into implementation of lasting peace and continuing development, however, remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Flanders, Laura. “Somalia turns corner.” Working for Change. 21 November 2001

August 2006

Garner, Judith. Somalia – The Untold Story: The War Through the Eyes of Somali Women. New York: Pluto Press, 2004.

Jan, Ameen. “Somalia: Building Sovereignty or Restoring Peace?” Elizabeth Cousens, ed. Peacebuilding as Politics: Cultivating Peace in Fragile Societies. New York: International Peace Academy, 2001.

Mire, Ahmed Ali. “A look at Women in Somalia.” Panorama 19 December 2002 3 August 2006

UNIFEM, “Somalia — Country Page.” Country Profiles. 1 August 2006. United Nations Development Fund for Women. 4 Aug 2006

UN Security Council, United Nations. Security Council.Report of the Security Council on the Situation in Somalia. New York: United Nations, 2003.

US Department of State, “Somalia.” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2005. 8 March 2006. Unoted States Department of State. 4 Aug 2006

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