For Somali women, the physical injuries caused by being raped are compounded by the almost ubiquitous practice of female genital mutilation (FGM – also known as female circumcision, or gudniin in Somalia).

Different forms of FGM are practised in many parts of Africa, and it is also common in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula, along the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East among some populations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Mistakenly thought of as a Muslim custom, FGM predates Islam and is found in Christian, Animist and Muslim societies. Among such societies a girl will be considered unclean, improper or unmarriageable if she does not undergo this operation as part of her rites of passage.

Somali women subjected to genital mutilation in their childhood have generally undergone the most severe form of FGM, infibulation, known in Somalia as qodob. This involves the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora and parts of the labia majora. The remaining surfaces are then stitched or fastened together. Only a small opening, sometimes the size of a match-stick, remains for the flow of urine and menstrual blood.

One of the reasons given to justify infibulation is that it is believed it will stop girls from being raped or sexually active.13

Any form of sexual intercourse for women who have undergone this operation is painful or impossible unless infibulation is reversed. Typically this is done on marriage and consists of making a short incision to separate the fused tissues.

Some refugee women and girls who had never had sexual relations before recounted how their attackers removed their ‘external virginity’ using razor blades, daggers or bayonets.

Some women were attacked in the daytime while in the bush collecting firewood. Most were attacked at night in their tents and either raped inside or taken to the bush. When assailants came in groups they tended to attack several women in the neighbourhood. Sometimes they rounded up victims in one compound, took them to the bush, and raped them collectively. Gang rape seems to have been a feature of most attacks. Only a few survivors reported being raped by one assailant while the majority described between two and ten. Many women reported being raped on more than one occasion.14

Nearly half of the refugee women who reported being raped during 1993 had previously been raped in Somalia, the majority in Kismayo town. This previous experience had driven them to become refugees in the first place.

According to the victims, most of the attacks in the camps were clan related. Since most of the refugees came from southern Somalia the clan and sub-clan tensions in Somalia were transferred to the camps.15 Many women said that the rapists would ask their clan affiliation or demand to know the location of the dwellings of a particular clan.16 The attackers would then target the women of that group. Women who were from the same clan as their attackers were often spared from being raped and were only robbed.

The majority of rapes also involved looting and robbery, even of the victims’ refugee food ration cards and kitchen utensils. Intimidation and extortion influenced the incidence of rape and sexual violence: a number of women who ran successful trading businesses in the camps became targets if they did not pay protection money. Women were targeted who had some form of income, usually from petty trading within the camp such as selling meat or firewood, or from working for a relief agency in the camp.

Many women, especially those from the Harti sub-clan of the Darod, became exposed to sexual violence when their husbands, brothers, fathers and male relatives left the camps to return to Kismayo town. Some of these men left to take part in the fighting in southern Somalia. However, many left because their lives were at risk in the camps owing to clan tensions – for example between the Harti, Ogadeni, Marehan and Hawiye. As men are seen as the progenitors of clans, their death jeopardises the propagation of the clans. In the eyes of many women, it was preferable for them to be without the protection of their male kin than to risk the life of the clan.