Crisis or Opportunity? Somali. Women Traders and the War
Amina Mohamoud Warsame
Somali women, both in rural and in urban settings, contribute substantially to their country’s subsistence economy. During periodic droughts, famine and conflicts over resources Somali women take active responsibility for the survival of their families. When faced with economic crisis – whether at a personal level or at the wider societal level – women in towns take as central a role in saving themselves and their families from starvation as do their nomadic counterparts.
Trading is one of the strategies urban women resort to in order to combat such situations. Women’s involvement in trade is not new. Their engagement in income-earning activities depends on, among other things, economic options, access to start-up cash, an alternative income provider in the family, an individual woman’s desire to be economically independent, and the wider economic situation.
The long civil war has increased people’s economic vulnerability. The almost total breakdown of the economy has put extra burdens on women to feed their families. Today more women than during any previous period in Somali history are turning to trade both in Somalia and outside the country.
In this chapter I present the changing role of Somali women in trade with special reference to women of Somaliland. The chapter is based mainly on material I collected during two field trips to Somaliland, in 1993 and 1994, for a research project on the impact of the civil war on pastoralists.1 I first trace women’s involvement in trade and then their struggle for economic survival amid the civil war and its aftermath.
I ask at which periods women’s trading activities were strongest or weakest, and why. What pushes women into trade rather than other cash-earning activities? How does Somali society – specifically men – look on women’s trading activities?
Because of Somali women’s central role in their family’s survival, and because of the collapse of the economy, an increasing number of women are forced to take to trade to make ends meet. However, many women do so for a more deeply felt need for some kind of economic autonomy vis-a-vis their husbands or other male relatives. For these women, their trading activities enhance their decisionmaking power in the family.
Much of the material in this chapter is taken from oral testimony in Somaliland and in Europe. For early historical periods, few written records giving information about women’s involvement in trade are available at all.