Changing Roles and. Responsibilities in the Family
Introduction by Judith Gardner
In Hargeisa in 1992 three elders were talking. One was well dressed and prosperous and other two – one of whom was ill – were quite poor. The sick elder said: ‘Can anyone change my sons into one girl?’ When asked why he wanted this he replied: ‘Because the well-dressed elder has two daughters, one takes care of his clothes and the other his food. I on the other hand have four sons – and look at me!’
This story was recounted by a Somali woman at a CIIR workshop in 1997 juxtaposed with the Somali proverb ‘One boy is equal to four girls’. She told it to explain how, in her experience, one positive impact of the war has been that women and girls are valued more highly than they were in the past. Research in the north in 2000/01 by the Somaliland Women’s Research and Action Group (SOWRAG) supports this view. SOWRAG’s research concluded, however, that this change of attitude is linked to the increased economic importance of women since the war rather than a fundamental change in attitudes. The research notes that ‘most Somali men and women still think women are naturally inferior to men’. (Amina Warsame 2001)
In ‘Changing roles and responsibilities in the family’, three Somali women explore the impact of the war on family life, how women’s responsibilities and position within the family have changed, and some of the consequences of these changes. Three different contexts are described: life for women refugees in the Canadian diaspora; urban women traders in the north of Somalia; and the personal experience of an educated, urban professional woman displaced by the war to a remote rural area in a part of Somalia she had never visited before.
The war’s impact on family livelihood systems
Chapter 1 of this book highlighted the important economic role that rural and poor women in Somalia have always played in the family.
Because of the impact of the war on the family and household nowadays almost every family – urban and rural, educated and uneducated – depends on the economic productivity of women to a far greater extent than before. And whereas in the past it was shameful for a man to be financially dependent on a woman, in many households, including within the diaspora, women are now the main breadwinners.1 A major factor promoting this change is the war’s effect on the male population and by extension, the typical livelihood /economic system of the extended family. This is explained below, drawing on the editor’s interviews with women and men in Somalia and the diaspora.
Historically in Somalia pastoral families have tried to deploy their ‘human resources’, male and female, strategically in order to spread economic risk and increase opportunities. For example, it would not have been surprising to find that an extended family includes: a son who lives as a nomadic herder in the rural area taking care of the extended family livestock; a daughter who is also a pastoralist, living with her husband in the rural area; another son at university in the capital training to be an engineer; a son working in a Gulf country who sends back money regularly to his relatives in Somalia; a daughter who trained as a teacher and is married to an army lieutenant; another son who runs a business in town using his brother’s foreign currency to buy imported goods; an unmarried daughter who is a bank clerk; and a grandson studying computer science in the US. Within this web of livelihoods income or resources in-kind are transferred or negotiated between family members so as to support and maintain the whole.
What the war has done to many extended families is to separate menfolk from the rest of the family, sometimes permanently. Taking the above example of what an extended pastoral family’s network might have included before the war, and based on real life scenarios, it is possible to imagine that the impact of the war on this hypothetical extended family might be as follows:
The son who is a nomadic herder left the rural area to take up arms. After demobilisation he settled in a town where he could more easily satisfy the qaad addiction he developed as a combatant; he depends on irregular income from the sale of ghee and milk passed to him by his wife and other relatives who maintain the remaining livestock.
The daughter who was a nomadic herder has lost her husband who fled to a neighbouring country to escape being killed and has not returned; whether he is dead or not, he no longer contributes to the welfare of the herd or the family. Many of the herd have been looted or died from disease; caring for the sheep and goats that are left, the daughter and her own children have settled on land near a town where she sells livestock products. Any income is shared with her parents.
The son at university left his studies when Mogadishu went to war; he joined a militia group for a while then escaped to Kenya where he spends all his time searching for a way to get to the West to continue his studies. He rarely finds work that he is willing to do, and when he does he spends any earnings on qaad. He depends on support from his mother’s relatives, also refugees in Kenya, for his day-today needs.
Still in the Gulf, the migrant son is now the only son providing income to the family; he remits dollars to his older sister, the former teacher, who is now internally displaced and trying to set up a shop with another displaced woman. She is separated from her army husband who fled to Kenya. He is not working but hopes to become involved in any new government in the south. Their two sons are also in Kenya living with one of his sisters, a refugee, who depends on remittances sent to her from another sister who lives in Canada.
The son who was a businessman died early in the war. His oldest son was also killed. His wife and the younger children finally reached a refugee camp in Kenya and now live in a slum area of Nairobi with her brother’s family.
The unmarried daughter who was a bank clerk is now living as a refugee in Yemen. Her family sent her with two of her nieces early in the war to prevent them being raped. She works illegally as a cleaner and remits money to her sister and mother when she can.
The grandson in the US had to give up his studies when his father died and his funding stopped. He no longer has a valid visa to remain and exists in a state of permanent insecurity surviving on what illegal work he can find and occasional support from an aunt who is also in the US and works in the travel industry.
These hypothetical but realistic examples show how, within the extended family, economic relationships have been transformed by the war whereby women now tend to be the key providers and men, if they are present, the dependants. A woman interviewed in the southern district of Kurtanwarey, in 2001, explained:
Earlier, it was men who used to be breadwinners for the family and on whom the family depended. Now men have lost this role. At times, men just stroll around and come back with nothing while the children are crying. Previously women didn’t know business. Some went to collect grass for cows. Today, work has shifted from men to women – be it business or collection of grass, it’s only women who do it.
For the majority of women their economic activities are at survival level, barely earning them enough to feed the family one meal a day. A woman interviewed by ACORD in 2001 as part of the same research project, describes her circumstances which are typical of many other women in this region:
For ten years now I [have been] struggling to bring up my children alone. We have no information regarding their father. We have lost hope of finding him. We have taken him to be dead … I work for my children. There are many children’s diseases: two of them have already died. The remaining two – I cultivate a jibaal [a hectare of land] for them. I leave the house in the morning and return at 5pm. Whatever I get, I pass the market and buy them food. That is how I give them food at night and in the morning I leave them. I have [endured] misery and sufferings in the struggle to bring up my children. My children have suffered and I have also suffered. From when my husband went missing I have laboured for my children. Nobody assists me in their upbringing. (ACORD 2001: 17)
Although some women own their own small-scale businesses such as restaurants and cloth shops they are relatively few. Some women in urban areas organise themselves into traditional savings and credit groups, known in the south as shollongo (hakbad in the north), in order to raise funds for their small businesses. Opportunities to earn income are more limited for rural women in the northern pastoral regions but nevertheless they are getting involved in economic activities traditionally associated with men, such as livestock trading. (Amina Warsame 2001)