Compiled from information provided by Shukri Hariir
and Zeynab Mohamed Hassan with additional material
from documents by and interviews with Zakia Alin,
Faiza Warsame, Amina M. Warsame and Maria Brons,
and Sacda Abdi.

Editors’ note

‘Whilst I myself felt helpless I realised there were others in greater

need and I felt moved to help them.’1

This chapter is concerned with how Somali women have shaped post-war recovery and relief activities and how they are now striving to shape a future for Somali society in which political power is shared with women.

The war has changed much in the lives of Somali women and men. Women have played a leading role in trying to save their families by whatever means available to them. Many more women are now the family breadwinners than was previously the case, often with men as their dependants. With their increased economic role has come an increased decision-making role over aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce and property ownership. For some women, their family and community’s survival, and concern with the longer-term consequences of continued violence and warfare, has led them to become peace activists. And countless women have become involved in action outside their immediate family through women’s groups. For many, this is their first experience of a decision-making role in the public domain.

The contributors to this chapter draw attention to the fact that, despite women’s increased economic importance, their leadership in responding to war-related emergencies and community welfare needs, and their significant role in peace-building, women in Somalia

and Somaliland have yet to be treated as equal to men when it comes to political power and leadership.

The chapter is concerned with how women have fared in gaining participation in the political administrations which have been established in Mogadishu, Puntland and Somaliland. A first-hand account by Zakia Alin from Mogadishu describes how women ‘beat the [clan] system’ in order to have representation in Somalia’s Transitional National Assembly. Zakia describes what they achieved by their ingenious strategy as well as the unexpected and disappoint­ing aftermath. A summary of the experience of women in Puntland is provided by Faiza Warsame and the War Torn Society Project in Somalia. This is followed by a case study from Somaliland compiled from the contributions of more than one woman; it includes detail of the 2002 multi-party local government elections, and traces the efforts women have made to gain representation in the Somaliland government, and the nature of the opposition they have faced.

A theme running through the chapter is how today’s Somali women’s organisations, like their antecedents in the women’s movement of the 1940s and 1950s,2 perceive the struggle to restore security and well-being to their communities as an opportunity for the long-term structural improvement of women’s lives. The Somaliland case shows how a renascent women’s rights movement is evolving from the legacy of women’s self-help groups that formed during the civil war. Founders of these groups describe their struggle to overcome a lack of basic skills and experience in organisational development – problems resulting from the exodus of the majority of educated women at the start of the war, and the lack of opportunity to develop civil society organisations under Siad Barre’s regime.3 Resonating with the experiences of women in Somaliland, Zakia Alin’s interview highlights the empowering experience women in Somalia have gained from their involvement in the civil society organisations which have mushroomed since 1991. (See opposite) Both contributions mention the formation of women’s coalitions and umbrella organisations such as Coalition for Grassroots Women’s Organisations (COGWO) in Mogadishu and Negaad4 in Hargeisa.

The concessions to women’s representation that have already been made are far outweighed by the remaining barriers, many of them the same ones that faced the women’s movement prior to and during the Siad Barre era:5

• A cultural bias against female leadership in government (voiced by women as well as men), based on cultural perceptions that women are created to bear children and do household work and are incapable of being leaders. One of the many Somali sayings illustrating this view describes women as ‘children with big feet’6 – a view often reinforced, incorrectly, through reference to Islam.

• Patrilineal clan-based governance, which has prevailed since the war and by definition excludes women on the basis of their ‘ambiguous’ clan loyalty.

• Many more women now work as full-time, subsistence level breadwinners with no spare time to engage in self-development or politics because of the war’s impact on the family livelihood system and the loss of male breadwinners.

• Women’s low self-esteem regarding their role in politics and other public decision-making roles which comes from years of socialisation as subordinates to men. As the 2002 local government elections in Somaliland showed, often women are unwilling to stand for political or public positions.

• Gender-based inequalities of domestic responsibility and child­care leave women, particularly poor women, overburdened and with little time to become involved in public or political work.

• Gender-based inequalities in education result in high levels of female illiteracy and few educated women available to stand for public office (a problem compounded by the fact that most educated women with any experience in public life have fled the country and are now living in the diaspora).