With the defeat of the regime in January 1991 the war between the SNM and the government came to an end. Voluntary repatriation from the camps followed after the declaration of independence by the ex-northern regions of Somalia. For several months ex-refugees returned to ruined towns and villages with no infrastructure, no social services and collapsed government institutions. Several conflicts erupted that added to the already precarious situation. The post-civil war period was characterised by renewed displacement of people, political tensions, clashes between the armed clan militias and rivalry within different factions over power and limited resources. The situation was further aggravated by the proliferation of weapons, which facilitated banditry and insecurity. Faced with total destruction and a collapsed economy the newly declared but unrecognised state of Somaliland had little prospect of viability. Formal unemployment was total and most people had lost everything in the war. Moreover, qaad chewing, involving many hours of idle sitting, spread among the male population. Not for the first time, the burden of coping with the new situation fell on women.

Today Somali women are involved in an important economic activity in increasing numbers, greater than at any other period in history. In the markets of the partially reconstructed towns as well as in rural areas, one can clearly see more women than men. Women have assumed a key role in travelling around the country to trade in vital commodities – cereals, vegetables, fruit, milk, qaad and meat as well as a variety of imported goods. They are active not only in important service and trading activities within Somaliland, but also in trade with countries such as Ethiopia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates.

A survey conducted by Save the Children in 1991 described women’s role in the wheat trade in this way:

The wheat grain is very largely imported from Harta Sheikh, just across the border in Ethiopia and the location of the largest refugee camp. The grain is collected by traders at the market there or directly from the refugee camp on the Dula’d plain outside the town. The traders operate on various scales. Many are women who hire space on trucks, and can be seen arriving at Hargeisa on top of their cargo of some 10 to 20 bags for each woman.

In another survey by Save the Children in 1993, covering all the major towns of Somaliland, the most common source of family income was found to be market activities, of which 56.8 per cent was conducted by women.6 A more recent UNICEF survey, carried out in 1996, found the proportion of female-headed households to be very high, up to 40 per cent in some areas, and the proportion of households where mothers were the major income providers was also high at 30 per cent.7

Most recently, women have also ventured into trade in areas thought of as male domains. A case in point is the increasing involvement of women in the qaad and livestock retail trades. For although some women took part in the former it was predominantly a male area. Today, an increasing number of women are involved in the qaad trade and, like men, are making an income by selling it (though not to the same extent as before the war), despite the alleged harm to society of qaad chewing. Women are also increasingly getting involved in the livestock trade, although on a much more limited scale than the qaad trade which needs little capital to get started.

Society’s view of women’s income-earning activities outside the home

Society in general, and men in particular, have in the past had a negative attitude towards women owning property, even an aqal (nomadic home). There is a frequently quoted traditional expression: ‘Never allow a woman to own anything of value: if she brings a clay pot with her to the matrimonial home, break it.’

This attitude is gradually changing as more and more women earn and control their own cash. In Somaliland today one hears of men’s appreciation for women’s indispensable economic role in the country. However, many female interviewees said that men tend to feel threatened by women’s increasing acquisition of cash and the freedom of movement associated with trade. A successful women entrepreneur made this point:

I started trading 40 years ago at the age of 25. My mother was a grain seller and I experienced how earning an income enhanced her position. I took after her, and since then I have been a trader in different commodities. Through the years I also realised that owning economic resources helps women to make important decisions in their families. This could be one reason why men don’t like women having economic resources. A friend of mine who is a trader had problems with her husband over her economic activities. Whenever there was an important decision to be made her husband felt his authority was being undermined by his wife. He could, for instance, say: ‘Who is the man of the family, you or me?’ or: ‘Don’t be deceived by your money, you are still a woman.’

The economic resources acquired by women, however, have not translated into political power, nor any meaningful economic power beyond the family level. Somali women continue to be absent from decision-making at the wider societal level.

The revival of traditional clan politics, in which only men can participate in decision-making, is a determining factor for Somali women’s role in the political arena. It is true that women have taken initiatives in peace-building in Somaliland; however, they have been excluded from the peace conferences that took place in the country. (See for example Chapter 6, ‘Women and peace-making in Somaliland’) Moreover, they are absent from both houses of authority (the Upper House, or guurti, and the House of Representatives) and they are not represented in the Council of Ministers in Somaliland.

Until now the allocation of all these positions has been based on clan representation, which excludes women from formal authority and governance. Before August 2002, when Somaliland’s first woman minister was appointed, only one woman had been appointed to a senior position in the administration and that appointment was short-lived. However, the local council elections that took place in Somaliland at the end of 2002 gave women an opportunity to become candidates. Although only two women secured seats from more than 300 seats, their victory can be counted as a groundbreak­ing move towards women’s involvement in the decision-making process. (See also Chapter 9, and ‘Afterword’.)

The rise of certain groups that might like to curtail women’s movements in the name of religion is to be reckoned with. In Islam there is no verse that directly bars women from earning income as long as they follow the Islamic code of wearing clothes that do not expose their bodies, avoid close contact with men and are not involved in illegal economic activities. Nevertheless, there are many men who would prefer to see women back in their homes. Many Somali women fear this threat. Most women are not aware of the specific rights that Islam has given them, but it seems there is high awareness of the right to be gainfully employed. Many women, especially those whose income is relatively high, are exercising that right.

In addition, women’s income is used nowadays in solving problems that could otherwise escalate into conflicts. A case in point is the payment of blood money (or diya) which used to be paid for by men. Today, when women are the sole breadwinners, they pay their family’s share of that money.