Women’s increased economic role in the family implies a change in gender relations at household level. With the family no longer eco­nomically supported by a man, and often without a productive man in the household, many women have become the household head responsible for decision-making. ACORD’s research found that ‘male interviewees say that they have accepted their wives as head of households and obey them, minimising family friction at this time of crisis’. (ACORD 2001: 28) One man said: ‘Now we obey our women. Women sell tomatoes, maize etc, the men are supported by their wives. They are taking us through this difficult time.’ (ACORD 2001: 27)

But whether or not this change is ‘merely circumstantial survival mechanisms which have few implications for the future’ (ACORD 2001: 43) or a precursor to transformation of the position of women in Somali society remains to be seen. For now, how the change in gender relations at family level is ‘experienced’ by women depends on many variables, not least their clan, economic class, whether they are urban or rural based and what kind of breadwinners they are: widows, abandoned women with children, women with a male partner who provides them emotional if not economic support, women with or without a support network of relations close by. Our research for this book indicates that becoming the breadwinner and experiencing increased economic power and decision-making at household level is more likely to be an empowering experience for urban-based, educated women who are emotionally supported by their male partner or have a close network of support from relatives than it is for uneducated women without a male partner or close support network – whether rural or urban.

Widows, and women separated from their husbands and left behind with their children, have experienced great emotional suffering as a result. ‘Probably the most painful impact of the conflict to many interviewees is disintegration of the household.’ (ACORD 2001) Thus it should not be assumed that because it brings a change in power relations at the family level the majority of women prefer to be the sole breadwinner or to live without a male companion. In insecure and alien environments such as refugee camps, or where the threat of a resurgence of armed conflict prevails, a woman without adult male relatives or an adult male companion of the appropriate clan family is likely to feel the absence of male ‘protection’ keenly. Not surprisingly, under such circumstances seeking to build a rela­tionship, short-term or otherwise, with a suitably armed, connected or otherwise qualified male companion or marriage partner is one survival strategy that some women and girls adopt. In rural families on the death of a husband it is customary, if there are young children, for the widow to become the responsibility – and sometimes the wife – of her husband’s brother or close kin. But since the war and the departure of so many men this traditional practice no longer functions. A widowed woman’s chances of remarrying to find male companionship and support are remote. Women separated from or abandoned by their husbands are allowed under shari’a to seek divorce. For many women this is a shameful prospect and they remain faithful to their absent husbands who may have fled to a neighbour­ing country and since remarried. (ACORD 2001)

Where men are present, many are unemployed and find their job prospects shattered. Men who were previously urban-based and employed in the formal or public sector, appear to have found it hardest to adapt to a situation where the kind of jobs they used to hold or aspire to are no longer available. Many men in the south of Somalia have been displaced from irrigated farmlands, as their livestock has been looted and their livelihoods and capital lost. Also it is difficult for people formerly employed in the public sector to take up a new economic activity such as farming because they generally do not own land. Insecurity, intimidation and extortion still prevail in the south to a far greater extent than elsewhere, factors that severely affect the ability of some men to engage in productive activities such as irrigated farming and livestock herding. Where they have no choice men, and women, work as casual labourers for those who have displaced them from their farms, receiving such a pittance that ‘if you work the whole day whatever you earn cannot buy you anything’. (ACORD 2002)

Unlike many men, women, who have also been hit by the lack of formal or public employment, have been less selective about how to earn an income, and have been willing to take on the most menial tasks and activities in order to bring the family food and basic necessities. A man interviewed by ACORD explained:

I cannot work and I cannot assume her household roles either. I cannot sell maize [in the market] or roast bread. Can I sell tomatoes? Can I do these jobs? That is the problem. My wife told me instead of our children perishing with hunger, I will work, you stay at home. That is how we are. (Ibid)

More research is needed to understand why ‘while a woman will not hesitate to trade in all kinds of items without fearing loss of pride, a man will be hesitant to engage in all economic activities he sees as “degrading" and “unmanly"’. (Amina Warsame 2001)

A Somali woman in the European diaspora talks about why women have fared better as refugees:

By the time they arrive here in Europe, the men will have lost their dignity and all the privileges attached to being males. They are no longer the kings of the household. Here they find themselves in a nuclear couple, with the woman their equal. Since neither men nor women are likely to be given a job commensurate with their status, you find both doing the same kind of low job. Women are more used to that, probably because they used to do it at home! It has brought about the absurd situation in which women are the breadwinners and men the dependants. And then the men refuse to help at home.3