Chronology of the pre-war women’s movement in Somalia
1959 Somali Women’s Association established: its main focus was welfare.
1960 Somali Women’s Movement (SWM) established: radical but short-lived organisation set up by middle-class women with the aim of fighting for women’s social, political, cultural and economic rights.
1969 Siad Barre comes to power and bans all political parties and social organisations – ending the first phase of the women’s movement.
1970 Founding of a Women’s Section under the Political Office in the Presidency of the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC): membership came from the banned SWM. Tasked with mobilising women and raising their political consciousness, the Women’s Section of the SRC established a committee in each village, district and region of the country.
1977 Somali Women’s Democratic Organisation (SWDO) founded by the government as the women’s branch of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (which at its formation in 1976 had a female membership of 66 per cent.2 Its Chairwoman was Kadija Ma’alin (wife of Siad Barre) and its mandate to ‘propose, promote and initiate progressive policies and programs for the advancement of the Somali women’.3
Pro-women’s rights national legislation included:
• Article 55 of the Workers Statute: ensuring the right of equal salary for equal work (it was never fully implemented)
• Family Law amendments 1975: giving equal rights to women and men in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance (though not prohibiting polygamy)
• Labour Code of 1972: promoted equality of women in the workplace
• Law No. 173 of 1975: made all land state property whereby women could obtain land leases or inherit leaseholds
• Constitution of 1978: established equal rights and duties for women and men alike.
Thus SWDO raised the discourse on women’s rights and proved a useful vehicle for policy change where issues concerning women converged with government policy, such as participation in public office and the campaign to abolish female genital mutilation (FGM). (See Part 1, Chapter 3) However, it was fundamentally flawed by being part of the controlling apparatus of Siad Barre’s corrupt and highly repressive regime. Moreover, the principal beneficiaries of Siad Barre’s state feminism6 were middle-class urban-based women; for the majority of rural women little changed. The credibility of SWDO grew increasingly tarnished by the late 1980s as, along with the rest of the heavily centralised government structure, it was infected by clan patronage, corruption and inefficiency. Given the extent of grievance, hatred and bitterness the regime evoked, it is not hard to imagine that for some Somali sceptics on women’s rights and equality, both men and women, ‘women’s rights’ is a concept (conveniently for some) too tainted by its association with Siad Barre to be easily embraced in the new era of statelessness.
Whether or not this is the case, what progress in women’s rights SWDO had contributed to at the public and political level was quickly reversed when the civil war erupted. The different forms of administration to have emerged in different parts of Somalia since 1991 have almost all been clan-based with all or majority male membership; women’s rights have for the most part been a nonexistent or marginal item on their agendas. Across Somalia women have had to begin again the struggle for their rights to be recognised and respected.
This is the subject of Chapter 9, ‘Post-war recovery and political participation’, which explores how women have collectively organised to tackle war-related community based problems, and in the process are laying foundations for a new women’s rights movement. The chapter presents experiences of women from around the country in relation to their struggle for equal participation in the political decision-making structures established since 1991.
Women’s involvement in peace-building and their striving for political empowerment are linked to the significant community – based leadership and organisational roles that women assume. Throughout Somalia women have been at the forefront of actions to assist vulnerable groups affected by the war, including the wounded, the starving and the displaced. Testimonies in this section, by Dahabo Isse and the late Noreen Michael Mariano, provide insights into some of the challenges and personal danger faced by those who took actions chiefly to prevent more death and suffering. A further testimony to the leadership and bravery that some women have demonstrated is provided in the obituary to the late Starlin Abdi Arush, community leader from Merca.
The following poem, composed in the 1960s by Hawo Jibril, explains why women joined the struggle for Somalia’s independence in the 1940s and 1950s. It is an apposite message for today’s generation of Somali women working to improve their communities and to empower women:
We wanted to break away from our seclusion.
We wanted to have the responsibility
To express our feelings and our views.
We wanted to show our concern for our country. (Hassan et al