A strong cultural stigma is attached to rape in Somalia, as elsewhere. Women who have been raped face not only physical and psycho­logical trauma but also the likelihood of rejection by their families. Although, in general, the social consequences of rape include rejection by husband, family and community, the outcome varies according to marital status as well as the social and cultural backgrounds of the victims. For an unmarried woman or girl who loses her virginity through rape her goal of finding a husband disintegrates.

One 16 year-old Somali girl who was raped stated: ‘Now I am treated like a prostitute. The only thing I want is to be buried alive and disappear from this world.’17 Similarly, older women who have developed their status and influence over the years find both shattered in the eyes of the community when they are dishonoured by rape. For married women the jeopardy lies in mixing her children from her husband with an unwanted child born as the result of rape. Although husbands are culturally bound to provide moral and financial support for the child, they often divorce their wife rather than live with the ‘shame’. If he remains with his wife, a man’s own social status suffers as the husband of a defiled woman. Daughters of marriageable age may also suffer as suitors may not wish to marry into a family with a mother-in-law who has been defiled by rape. Meintjes et al put it thus: ‘Rapists strip women not only of their economic assets (food, clothing, jewellery, money and household furnishings) … but also of their political assets, which are their virtue and their reputation.’18

It is not surprising, therefore, that deep fear of being stigmatised prevented many women refugees who have been raped from coming forward to seek medical help or report their ordeal to police, or participate in the UNHCR mission to research and respond to rape in the camps. ‘To admit to being raped is an admission of guilt in Somali society’, according to one female lawyer assisting the UNHCR project.19 This is one reason why the exact numbers of rape incidents that occurred as a result of the war will probably never be known.

Within the camps, women who have survived rape attacks generally withdrew from the social and economic activities of the community. They refrained from collecting food, firewood or water. Many petty traders allowed their businesses to collapse. Women reported that their main reason for withdrawing from such activities was the ostracism they faced in public places. The children of these women also faced similar discrimination and harassment as a result of their mothers’ misfortune. Many children were left severely traumatised by witnessing their mother’s rape and refrained from regular social interaction with other children.

After being raped many women felt unable to conduct their household chores such as cooking food, and this caused their own and their children’s nutritional status to deteriorate. Women who gave birth as a result of being raped suffered severe trauma during the post-natal period causing nutritional problems for both mother and infant.

The social consequences of rape in the refugee camps