Through lobbying and training initiatives, women’s organisations also played an important role in the demobilisation campaign to disarm and rehabilitate former SNM fighters. At the end of the war, in 1991, many SNM fighters laid down their arms and returned to civilian life. Some stayed together as military units linked to their sub-clan group. Others turned to banditry and lawlessness. During the first half of the 1990s well armed, sometimes traumatised, and badly disciplined gang members – known as dey-dey14 – caused widespread insecurity and violence, especially along the roads.

With agreement from the clan elders and material support from business people and local organisations such as SOWDA, in 1995 the government finally completed the demobilisation and reintegration of up to 5,000 militiamen. Using the campaign slogan, ‘Put down the gun and take up the pen’, SOWDA alone claims to have demobilised more than 400 former fighters, receiving from them 1,500 items of weaponry and ammunition which SOWDA in turn handed over to the government.

Political participation

Until the reconciliation and governance processes established at the Boroma Conference of 1993 (see Chapter 6) women activists’ overriding concern was how to achieve peace and reconciliation. From late 1993 the focus was women’s rights, particularly their right to take part in government. A revival of traditional forms of governance and reconciliation15 was the means by which the leaders in Somaliland transformed clan-based conflict into a sustainable peace. There was significant input from women peace activists, who themselves advocated the revival and use of traditional means of conflict resolution and peace-building. Yet within the traditional form of governance based on the patrilineal clan system, women are excluded from direct participation and decision-making. So began a struggle by women in Somaliland to assert their human right to equal political status – a right legislated for under the Siad Barre regime but not attained by the vast majority of women.

Women lobbied for political inclusion from the start of their involvement in peace-building in 1991. Their 1992 letter demanding an end to the clan war in Berbera (see Chapter 6) demanded that a third of the national parliament be women – they had decided to postpone demanding their right to half the parliament until later. The inclusion of 10 women observers at the National Peace and Reconciliation Conference in Boroma in October 1993 fell short of women’s ambition but was seen by many to be an historic precedent as it allowed women some measure of participation in what was otherwise a traditional clan shir. It represented a step towards achieving full political status. Below is a translated copy of the letter presented by women’s organisations at the Boroma Conference:

The Republic of Somaliland

To: Chairman of the National Reconciliation Conference

To: Secretariat, delegations and observers at the National


Subject: Request for women’s membership in the National Conference

On behalf of the Somaliland women’s groups which we represent here at the National Conference, we first of all wish to express our support for the guurti (assembly of elders) for the bold and democratic decision they have taken by offering us membership with observer status at the Conference. We are very much obliged to you for taking this unprecedented step. Secondly, and in relation to peace and reconciliation, we would like you to take into con­sideration this application for women to be included [with voting rights].

Somaliland women are the backbone of the country. We are also the majority of the population, about 63 per cent. We are human beings dignified by God and our rights cannot be undermined.

Brothers, given all that, we have the right to share in decisions about the destiny of our own country. Also, as Muslim people, we claim the fundamental rights that our holy religion gives us. Therefore, we request full membership in the National Conference, with voting rights, as women’s representatives.

Brothers, blame not, nor indeed ignore us. For God created us as women. Women are not clan members but should be taken into consideration as members of the nation.

Lastly, if the National Conference concerns Somaliland and all its people, women should play their part. But if the conference is only for men and only they have voting rights, we may feel that we have nothing to share in this event.

With many thanks

Fadumo Warsame Hirsi, Shukri Hariir Ismail, Fadumo Mohammed Ibrahim, Faisa Haj Abdillahi, Asha Haji Yusuf

In 1994 a conflict developed between the government and a sub­clan in Hargeisa. Fearful of a descent into violence, women’s organisations demonstrated for a peaceful resolution to be found. The demonstrators, exclusively women and children, protested: ‘Enough with war! Enough with armed fools! Enough killing of children! And enough fleeing of women!’16 Women took the lead in setting up a committee consisting of women and youth organisa­tions, to mediate between the two sides. Chaired by a woman, Shukri Hariir Ismail,17 the committee held talks with the government on the one side and with the clan elders and armed young men of the clan on the other. The committee undertook reconciliation discussions with the president, elders from both sides and clan militia, in an attempt to diagnose their differences. Despite the committee’s efforts, on 15 November 1994 civil war broke out in Hargeisa and lasted into 1996 when peace and reconciliation were finally brokered.

Around this time some women’s organisations such as the Women (sic) Advocacy and Progressive Organisation (WAPO) and Dulmar moved away from their social and welfare role and began focusing their energies on ‘advocacy for women’s rights to be acknowledged and respected and for women to be allowed to participate in politics’. Shukri Hariir Ismail, founder of WAPO and its successor, Women’s Advocacy and Development Association (WADA), recalls the efforts made by women and the responses from elders and politicians at the time of the Shir Beleleedka (Congress of Clans – a national congress held in Hargeisa from October 1996 to January 1997 that brought together all Somaliland’s clans for reconciliation and the selection of a new president and vice president):18

The women’s organisations in Hargeisa wrote letters to the House of Elders demanding that women should be able to participate at the conference. The Elders response was that there could be 11 women attending the conference but their role would be restricted to that of observers and they would not have the right to vote.

Demobilisation of combatants

6 Women bearing a banner reading ‘There is No Life Without Peace’ participate in a protest with tens of thousands of people in Hargeisa, Somaliland, in 1994. Twenty-five thousand militia had been demobilised, peace and stability were returning to Somaliland, yet warmongering by opponents of the Somaliland government was threatening to spark civil war Not long after the protest, war broke out. (Hamish Wilson/Panos Pictures)

This offer, although not satisfying women’s demands, was accepted for the following two reasons: 1. The offer would allow women to contribute their peace-making ideas to the conference, 2. Women attending the conference would be able to raise the agenda of the right of women to share in the decision-making bodies of government.

At the conference’s opening ceremony women presented songs which sent the message of the new mutual understanding and wholeheartedness of the Somaliland community. Meanwhile I was chosen to articulate the women observers’ demands, which included the recognition of the women observers as full partici­pants with voting rights. The chair of the conference responded that the first phase of the conference would address solely the issue of tackling clan conflicts. The women’s agenda would be addressed during the second phase when the national constitution was on the agenda.

During the conference the government and opposing sub-clan who had been fighting (since 1994) eventually reconciled. The militia was demobilised and joined the government forces. Being motivated by this, women tried to forward their agenda to the conference of 500 male representatives – but without success. Again the chair of the conference responded with the excuse that the women’s agenda would be discussed once the National Constitution had been approved by conference. Whenever women came near to a hope of having the issue of women’s agenda discussed it was shattered…

The draft Nation Constitution was introduced to the conference and was discussed … This draft Constitution actually enshrined articles ensuring women’s rights. The draft was approved by a majority vote.

Being energised by the fact that the draft National Constitution clarified the recognition of women’s rights, women again submitted their appeal for gender equity in the House of Parliament and called for the recognition of the 11 women observers as full participants in the forthcoming parliament. In addition six observers from minority clans19 submitted an appeal similar to ours. We politicised the agenda, questioning the chair of the conference on every aspect.

The conference chair finally stated that both the observers from the minority clans and the women observers were to be comprised of six participants each and that they would be made full voting

members of the conference. The six participants from the minority clans were approved by the conference. As for the six women observers, when introduced for approval, the conference started quarrelling… Some were saying: ‘Which clan do they belong to?’ … ‘the conference consists of clan representatives’. Eventually the conference did debate whether or not women would be allowed to participate at the conference and join the parliament and the house of elders. The debate concluded that it should be first clarified whether the Islamic shari’a law20 allows women to participate in national conferences and at national assemblies.

It seemed clear to us that the men did not want us but were avoiding giving a direct objection. Whenever we overcame one obstacle men would present us with yet more difficult ones.

Sheikhs [respected authorities on religion] were assigned to clarify whether Islamic shari’a law allows women to participate at such conferences or not. After three days the Sheikhs clarified that yes, shari’a law does allow for women to take part in national assemblies and conferences. They further defined that during the period of Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) women used to take part in all community activities. Sheikh Abdillahi Sheikh Ali Jowhar, a participant, read the clarification on behalf of the other participants and sheikhs. Sheikh Omer, a participant, also gave details of women’s rights as prescribed by shari’a. The positive response of the Sheikhs was a relief – but only for a few minutes. Whenever one obstacle had been overcome a more irksome one appeared. The conference had conditioned women’s participation on shari’a Islamic law permitting it. But as soon as [the Sheikhs] found out that shari’a would allow women’s participation they presented another story.

Contrary to our expectation, on the day when the women’s agenda was introduced to the conference, the conference had to be halted as a result of the confusion and disorder made by the [male] representatives when our agenda was introduced for approval. We felt the atmosphere was anti-women judging from the words of some of the male representatives who were saying ‘the conference is only for the male representatives of the clans’.

The next day the chairman declared that conference-chairing committee had withdrawn the agenda for women’s participation from the conference, on the basis that the clans sent only men representatives to the conference. The chairman further stated that this issue had brought about a great deal quarrelling and argument which showed that it would be rejected if put to a vote. He further directed that women would have to wait until the end of the next term of government [in other words, 2000 at the earliest], when a multi-party system would be introduced. Then, with the formation of independent political parties instead of clan representation, women could stand to become elected as members of parliament.

To add to our disappointment, the only woman candidate for the post of the president, Radiya Roda Haj Ali, was ignored by the Chairing Committee, which chose neither to respond positively or negatively to her candidacy, whereas they gave a reply to all the male candidates.

The conference’s objection to our long-sought aspiration of sharing decision-making bodies with men coincided with International Women’s day on 8 March. We arranged the festival ceremonies and celebrations both in the morning and in the evening of this day. We invited members from the House of Elders, the Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. In her speech for the occasion, women’s leader, Faiza H. Abdillahi, said that whilst this day was a celebration for the women of the world it was a black day for the women of Somaliland for on this day the rights of the Somaliland women were rejected by the national conference.