During the socialist period of the Siad Barre era all but government – linked social organisations were banned. Change came in the early 1980s when international NGOs rushed to assist with the influx of refugees created by the 1977-78 Ogaden war, and to alleviate hardships arising from the World Bank-imposed structural adjustment programme. In their wake a few indigenous Somali organisations emerged and like their international counterparts these Somali organisations mainly focused on health and income-generation.7 Although no longer banned, NGOs operated under constant and oppressive scrutiny by the regime.

Since the collapse of the regime in 1991 and the loss of formal employment opportunities possibly thousands of people across the

country have set up organisations or group responses related to the social, employment and infrastructure needs resulting from the years of conflict. Widely varying in purpose, power structure, membership or personnel characteristics and motivation, target groups, sources of funding and quality of activities, the collection of organisations defy a single definition. Some could be classified as welfare or charity groups perhaps engaged with a specific need such as education, literacy or health; others are employment or profit-seeking self-interest groups searching for opportunities to gain a livelihood from their activities; others are common-interest groups such as people with disabilities, youth or minority groups;there are credit and income-generation self­help group and others that are issue-based pressure groups. There is also the phenomenon of ‘briefcase NGOs’ – a term Somalis have coined for a bogus organisation which exists only in its representative’s briefcase, which he or she gets out to impress a potential sponsor.

Perhaps the most widespread characteristic among these new groups and organisations is the tendency for many, but by no means all, of them to be clan or sub-clan specific.

Within this diverse range of organisations are those that distinguish themselves as ‘women’s groups/organisations’ of which there are many in all regions of the country. Many, but not all, of the women’s groups which have formed since 1991 came about when women joined together to plan and undertake collective activities to promote peace and security in their localities. For many, this involved addressing the basic welfare needs of the community and its most vulnerable members, such as shelter, water, landmine clearance and help for the wounded, orphaned and widowed.

Women’s participation in Somalia’s Transitional National Assembly

(For information about the formation of the TNG, see page 6)

Zakia Alin, who works for Save Somali Women and Children, recounts how women managed to overcome male objections to their ‘dual clan’ identity (see Chapter 7), so as to be included in the inter­nationally sponsored Somali National Peace Conference, held in Djibouti in 2000. As she describes, they made sure that women were represented in a national governing body that emerged from the conference but then found unexpected problems within their own movement.

Zakia’s account begins by describing her organisation’s involvement in promoting what was to be Somalia’s 13th inter­national peace and reconciliation conference to attempt to put together a new form of governance for the country:

We [about 120 women] wrote a petition-letter to the UN Secretary – General, Kofi Annan, informing him of the problems we have in Somalia in general and how women are suffering. And he responded and put in his report that Save Somali Women was among those who give him advice. And soon after, the president of Djibouti Republic, His Excellency Ismael Omar Guelleh, also said in the Security Council in September 1999, that we have to interfere, we have to make a reconciliation [and peace conference]. At that time there were about 60 intellectuals [from Somalia] in Djibouti and among them were about five women including the chair of Save Somali Women, Asha Haji Ilmi. They told him that women should participate as equal partners, not as observers. And he accepted. We have also to thank President Omar Guelleh.

So we got that delegation of 100 women and we tried hard to mobilise ourselves and then got also 50 observers out of the 100 delegates. [But] people fight because of clan and they wanted to reconcile according to their clan – every clan wants to get a share. We as women refuse to rally behind the clan, and said, for example, if you are married to another clan, you are 50-50 – nobody wants to give you a share, and according to traditional clan structure, women have no role. So we said why don’t we form our own clan which is the ‘Women’s clan’? We lobbied to get one clan [of women included in the conference], and we succeeded in having our own clan.8 [There were] two people co-chairing, and three vice-chairs who were representing the five main clans of Somalia [represented at the conference]. So we also tried hard to get also somebody who [was] representing our ‘Women’s clan’. And we selected the same Honourable Asha [Haji Ilmi] to represent the ‘Women’s clan’. She is a member of the African Women’s Committee on Peace and Development. So she is a very articulate woman, and she really sacrifices, because she left her six-month – old girl behind and stayed there for six months. All of us stayed there but for her it was very difficult because she left a six-month – old baby.

During the conference we [the conference delegates] decided to draft a national charter and we [put] five women in the drafting committee [of] about 14-16 [members]. And we put our perspec­tives [in the draft]. With a lot of struggle and sleepless nights we got 25 [seats reserved for] women in the parliament [the Transitional National Assembly] out of 245. It was really very good.

We were thinking that at least the seats would be there. We were not thinking about the quality of women [who would take them]. After all it’s the elders who would give us the names of the women [who would be given seats]. So we are not very happy now about the composition of our parliament because you may see people who do not have a good educational background.

But we say if you give them a lot of skills they can make it. The plan was [that the TNG] had to come up with a national consti­tution. We are ready to put women there and put our own gender perspectives there and affirmative actions. We were also planning to get about 12.5 per cent [female representation] to the parliament. We were thinking [women] should also be in the cabinet [a 25-member all-male body], in the district level, in the village level, but this is not happening. [Since being elected the TNG has not succeeded in gaining control over the country and its influence remains confined to an area of Mogadishu.]

The problem is that it is a male-dominated society and it is now saying ‘we belong to our [kinship] clan, we don’t belong to this [clan of women] you are talking about’.

Some people in the top leadership used women to destroy the spirit of our innovative initiative. We got about five women in the parliament from our organisation Save Somali Women.

So now our problem is that there has not been reconciliation yet. So we are hoping [for] women to represent the ‘Women’s clan’ and to come [to further talks] as men’s equal partners. We want to participate in these peace talks. We are looking for women to participate in these peace talks as women [not as kinship clan members].

(This is an edited version of an interview between Zakia Alin and International Alert, conducted in Kampala, Uganda on 26 March 2003 and transcribed by International Alert.)