In Somali culture all children are considered a blessing from God. However, it is a patriarchal society and greater symbolic value is placed on a male than a female child. Generally, the birth of a boy child is celebrated with the slaughter of two animals, while for a girl only one is slaughtered, if any. Male homicide requires twice the compensation a female homicide demands and revenge killings, obligatory for men, are rare for women. For both women and men, having children is key to one’s place in the clan structure (see Chapter 7). Children, particularly boys, are the continuation of the clan and boys will continue their fathers’ lineage. A childless woman or man is called goblan, meaning barren and unproductive – ‘the worst curse that may be wished on someone’.20

Living in a highly structured patrilineal society women and girls in Somalia are traditionally assigned a status inferior to men, who take the dominant roles in society, religion and politics. However, in the words of three Somali women scholars, ‘Somali women, whether nomadic or urban, have never been submissive, either to natural calamities or to social oppression.’ (Hassan et al 1995)

Strict division of labour makes women responsible for dealing with domestic tasks from finding and preparing food to child-rearing and water and firewood collection. Having to do domestic chores leaves little or no time for involvement in community decisions or education.21 And although within most groups women have always played a significant role in the economy, traditionally their sphere of influence and decision-making was, publicly at least, confined to the home (see Chapter 9). As described in Chapter 6, the exception is during conflict when a woman may be expected to play the role of peace envoy or messenger between her husband’s clan and her father’s clan. Unlike men whose status in the community increases with age, a woman’s status diminishes when her child-bearing years come to an end. (Warsame 2001)

With the exception of some cultures, such as the Bravanese, women are traditionally allowed to work outside the home, especially when it is in the family’s interests, as in agro-pastoral and nomadic pastoralist families. According to gender researcher Amina Warsame, whilst men are traditionally the family provider women have always sought some degree of economic independence, whether through their own labours or by saving some of the household budget provided by their husband. Within the pastoral community livestock represents a family’s wealth and was traditionally the property of men. A pastoral woman could not own livestock except those she could claim as meher (bride price) on her husband’s death (see Chapter 2). However, women had full control over the sale and exchange of livestock products such as milk and ghee and used these resources to provide for both the household needs and their, and her own future economic security.

As described elsewhere in this book, one impact of the war is that women are increasingly replacing men as the breadwinners of the family. This is a major change in gender relations and the household economy. Before the war, as one Somali woman commented, ‘whatever a woman earned was for her and it was shameful for others, especially men, to be dependent on her’.

Progressive reforms were made to Family Law in 1975 assuring women equal rights with men and making discrimination against women illegal. However, little was done to educate the general population about women’s equality, or to enforce the provisions of the law. Hence the reforms made no impact outside the urban areas and elites. Nothing really changed for the vast majority of women who are rural and uneducated. Currently, in the parts of Somalia where admin­istration and governance is restored, the reforms to the Family Law play no part in contemporary legal practice, discredited completely by their association with Siad Barre’s regime. Custom, tradition and lack of education have ensured that few women have ever reached senior positions in government or the civil service. Publicly influential women have been the exception rather than the rule.

A woman’s or girl’s life will be determined by: how rich or poor her family is; whether she is literate or illiterate, urban or rural based; and, if rural, whether she is part of a pastoralist, agro-pastoralist or sedentary agricultural social group. In the pastoral society described in Chapter 1 women are valued for the role they play in the economy and for the livestock they bring to the family on marriage. Life is perhaps hardest for a girl born into a landless agricultural family.22 The same is probably true for boys.

Even before the war Somalia had among the lowest literacy rates in the world for both women and men. (See Appendix 2 – ‘Somalia in facts and figures’). The decade-long conflict has severely affected all children’s chances of accessing education. The war has made families more dependent on girls to substitute for or help their working mothers. This has diminished still further their chances of entering, let alone completing, even primary level education.

Lacking education, and especially Arabic comprehension, Somali women tend not to be well-versed in Islam and Islamic shari’a law. In communities where there has been a rise in Islamic fundamental­ism since the war it is increasingly common for religious references to be used by members of the community to exert control over women.

In Somali society men too lack education and are brought up to fulfil traditionally ascribed roles and expectations. Generally assumed to have a social status superior to women, and free from everyday domestic responsibilities, men are assigned the dominant roles in religion, economics and politics. Society holds them responsible for most of the decision-making from the household upwards. According to oral tradition, in times of conflict ‘a man who was engaged in killing and looting was usually admired and praised, while a peace advocate was scorned and dismissed as weak and worthless’.23, 24

Able to take up to four wives through polygamous marriage, a source of great misery to women, men are expected to be responsible for the maintenance of the family as provider and protector. Men are expected to act in prescribed ways to promote the family’s survival. In the nomadic pastoral context, as Chapter 1 describes, this may mean separating from the family in hard times in order to maximise remaining family members’ access to whatever resources are available. As protectors men are expected to take part in wars or build alliances for peace, and if necessary die for the sake of the family and clan.