Article 57 of the Somaliland Constitution, referring to the rights of women:

• Women and men are equals as far as the rights, freedom and responsibilities outlined in the Somaliland Constitution are concerned.

• The Government should promote the rights of women to be liberated from customs and traditions which are against the shari’a and which affect their body physically and psychologically [a reference in particular to the practice of female genital mutilation].

• Women have the right to own, manage, supervise, use and donate their assets in accordance with shari’a.

• To enhance knowledge and income, women have the right to education including skills training and adult education

Angry but undeterred, women in Somaliland continue to campaign for their rights, turning the challenges that confront them into opportunities to develop further organisational and planning skills. A welcome decision by the transitional president21 was the appointment of a woman to be Minister of Family and Social Welfare.

Somaliland’s first multi-party district council elections, December 2002

Although later than planned, following a referendum on the draft constitution in 2001 the government duly paved the way for a multi­party political system to replace the clan-based form of governance which had been in place since 1991. For the entire voting population this heralded the first multi-party political election since 1969 when Siad Barre took over power. For women, this shift away from clan – based politics provides a major opportunity not only to vote as men’s equals for the first time in more than a decade but also to field candidates and gain representation in the political parties competing for election.

In October 2000 a group of leading women within Somaliland’s civil society came together to form the Women’s Political Forum (WPF). Forming two years before the December 2002 multi-party district council elections were due, WPF’s original aim was to promote women’s political participation at every level.

Within a few months of being formed WPF decided to create its own political party, Qoys, meaning ‘Family’, to represent women’s concerns. But they could not find women willing to stand as political candidates for their party. All those they approached were either not prepared to stand, felt they could not give up their jobs or did not feel they had sufficient education. So WPF changed its strategy, con­centrating instead on persuading the other (male-dominated) political parties to include women candidates and to give greater priority to women’s issues in their party manifestos. Women candidates did come forward and were encouraged by WPF to seek positions in the parties’ hierarchies. In the end two parties did nominate women as co-vice chairs.

WPF also selected one party, Hormood, to align with on the basis that its manifesto was pro-women’s rights and being aligned with Qoys would attract women voters. The understanding of this alignment was that Hormood would offer the position of vice chair to a woman but in the event they did not do so: ‘They finally said “It won’t work" – in addition they delayed making the list of candidates and when the list came forward there were not enough women included.’22

Undefeated, WPF joined other civil society groups in conducting voter-education training and awareness raising. WPF’s aim was to encourage women to come out and use their vote on election days and for both voters and candidates to prioritise women’s issues.

When election day came on 15 December more than 400,000 women and men over the age of 16 turned out to vote. In the absence of census data no one is certain what proportion of the eligible voters this turn-out represented, and there is no figure for the number of women although women were reported to have voted in large numbers. There were six parties competing in an electoral process based on proportional representation whereby votes were not for individuals but parties and the party which received the most votes at the district level won the most seats on the council. Each party submitted a list of candidates drawn up in priority order; names on the list would qualify for a seat on the council depending on the number of votes won by their party. Between the lists of the six parties there was a total of approximately 2,760 candidates for 332 seats across 23 local councils. Of these 2,760 candidates just six were women. When votes were counted, two of the six women came through the process qualifying for seats and now hold elected positions in their local councils (in Erigavo and Gebiley).

For WPF, the experience of this first multi-party election in Somaliland has proven that with democratic electoral processes the lack of educated women to promote women’s interests at the political level remains a major constraint on efforts to improve women’s lives. Educated Somali women are a minority in Somaliland (and in Somalia as a whole), the majority being in the diaspora. As noted in the UNDP Somalia Human Development Report 2001, ‘Tradition and lack of education mean that few women are fully aware of their rights and in their efforts to hold communities together, they often accept violations of their rights as being consistent with shari’a and customary law.’ (UNDP 2002)