Somali society has two distinct terms for acts of sexual aggression: kufsi which is most closely analogous to the western term ‘rape’; and faro – xumeyn which may be translated as ‘sexual assault’.These terms are often interchangeable. Traditionally, Somalis define kufsi as penetrative sexual intercourse with a woman by an assailant using force, against her will. The term kufsi comes from the word kuf, literally ‘to fall down’, implying both the use of force to make one fall down and a drop in value of the honour and prestige of those who are forced to fall.

Faro-xumeyn, literally ‘bad-fingered’, consists of any malicious actions intended to produce physical or psychological harm to women, from the more ‘socially accepted’ acts such as inappropriate physical contact, to wife-beating and rape. Faro-xumeyn is often used euphemistically to connote rape.

Rape as a consequence of war, however, is only one form of sexual assault Somali women face. Other situations involving sexual abuse, recognised and defined within Somali culture, are:

Rape to force a marriage occurs primarily within nomadic society. In Somali pastoral society women are valued for the bride-wealth they will bring to their father’s house. However, in their quest for financial security fathers often demand amounts of bride wealth which are beyond the means of eligible suitors. So groups of eligible suitors will sometimes conspire to have one of their number rape a local girl whose bride wealth is considered too high. The suitor is then able to negotiate with the victim’s family to obtain a reduction in the payment, since they will be anxious to arrange a speedy marriage. Often the victim is an unwilling participant in these marriage arrangements but is forced to take part by her family in order to uphold their honour. Many such marriages soon end in divorce or separation. Such a marriage can in the long term lead to trauma for the victim.

Dhabar-garaac, meaning forced marriage, occurs in nomadic society when a girl is abducted by raiders and then forced to marry one of her captors. This practice is extremely coercive, with the girl being beaten, starved and otherwise physically and psychologically abused until she agrees to marry. The abducted women are allowed to return home or contact their families only after they have become pregnant (when the marriage arrangement can no longer be annulled).This practice had begun to disappear but underwent a resurgence with the outbreak of civil war, when there was an increase in the numbers of women without traditional networks of protection. There were a number of reported incidents of dhabar-garaac within the refugee camps in Kenya.

Laheyste-galmo means literally ‘sexual hostage’ and most people say that it was unheard of before the war. Some, however, say that it did occur in the past, mostly during times of inter-clan warfare. Such instances occur when armed men raid the settlement of an opposing clan and either kidnap women and young girls, or occupy the settlement making the women hostages in their own homes. While in captivity the women are forced to cook, clean and watch the herds of their kidnappers as well as provide them with sexual services. Marriage almost never results from this kind of sexual abuse and any children born belong to the mother. Captivity may last for months. Many girls and women suffering from the effects of rape in the Somali refugee camps had suffered such attacks. Some of these had happened within Somalia, others in camps in Kenya, probably the work of bandits preying on women gathering firewood.

In the case of assault on a married woman, the perpetrator or his clan is forced to pay the equivalent of the woman’s bride price (meher) to her family. This is intended to create the legal fiction that the victim was married to her assailant at the time of the attack. The fictitious marriage is considered valid only for the period of the attack, not thereafter. Its purpose is to preserve the woman’s social reproductive capacity – that is prevent her from being ostracised. If the woman becomes pregnant the child belongs to the real husband, although he will often seek a divorce. Compensation is given to the woman’s relatives and not to her husband.

In the case of assaults against divorced or widowed women the compensation demanded is the same as that for an unmarried woman except that her relatives do not demand the diya payment.

In all of the above, terms of compensation are ‘ideal’ types implemented when the assailant is not related to the victim by blood or clan. In cases where the woman is related to her attacker, or if he is of the same clan, compensation is generally less and sometimes dispensed with entirely. Even in cases where compensation is given, almost all of it is kept by the elders of the clan or the male members of the woman’s family, leaving little of it for the woman herself.

In the case of rape during war it is the responsibility of the clan to avenge the attack, and in such cases compensation is not generally sought. In these instances the clan has a responsibility to look after the interests of the victims. For example, if she is single they must find a suitor to ‘clean the shame’, or if she is married the elders will encourage the husband not to divorce her even if a child results from the rape. These are traditional interventions by the elders resorted to in times of intermittent clan-based warfare, when cases of rape are relatively rare. In a protracted war such as during the past decade, when rape is common and at the same time fewer marriageable men are available, clan elders tend to forsake this duty.

In the case of raped women in the refugee camps in Kenya, elders were eager to seek the highest compensation possible for rapes committed against their clanswomen. Many victims complained that the reason for their zeal was primarily a desire for material gain when resources were scarce, rather than a concern for the honour of the victim or the clan. The UNHCR research in 1993 found that many elders at that time were reluctant to report attacks to camp authorities partly because they stood to gain more if they pursued the case through traditional means. It was reported to the UNHCR that local Kenyan police often preferred to allow clan elders to handle the case in exchange for a portion of the compensation payment. This situation did change as a result of the UNHCR’s awareness-raising work with elders and the Kenyan police.

Some women who preferred to settle their cases through negotiation and compensation agreed by the clan elders noted that the compensation was derisory. Each of the elders who negotiates on the woman’s behalf, as well as her close male relations, is entitled to a share of the compensation. Moreover, the assailants generally go unpunished. Even the clan elders became frustrated at seeing the same men committing the crime repeatedly, so that eventually it was they who were encouraging the women to go through the legal system. On the other hand, when cases went to court, assailants’ families strongly resist the accusation, because of the violence and physical brutality in Kenyan jails. Another factor which encouraged women to seek settlement through the courts was the fact that rape is a felony against the State of Kenya; thus women come to court as witnesses in a criminal investigation, as well as being victims seeking to redress a wrong.