The book aims to reflect the experiences and perceptions of Somali women in and about war. It seeks to contribute to our understand­ing of the conflict in Somalia, and hence of conflict as a phenomenon. Describing war entirely through the eyes of women, the commentaries and testimonies show just how cataclysmic the Somalia conflict was for men, women and children, and for Somali society in general. The experiences of war described in this book are often shocking, but they appear to have been similar in different regions of Somalia, and for different clans and other social groups, despite the differing political and social contexts. Compare, for example, Habiba Osman’s account of the fighting around Baidoa and during the fall of Mogadishu with that of Shukri Hariir in Hargeisa in 1988.

Conflict has not been the only factor driving change in Somalia in significant ways. Urbanisation was already having an impact on Somali society prior to war breaking out. Rhoda Ibrahim shows how Somali pastoralists have always needed to be able to adapt to drought and sedentarisation, while Amina Warsame describes livelihood diversification as the main risk-avoidance strategy of Somali society whatever mode of livelihood was practised. The violence, insecurity and penury that accompany war have accelerated changes in social relations, and increased the importance of emergency coping strategies such as petty trade; they have also made the economy dependent on remittances.

The connections between conflict and gender have been the subject of a growing interest, over the last two decades in particular, in academic, policy, and humanitarian and development circles. The material in this book contributes to this debate by presenting women’s own descriptions of their experiences of conflict and their responses to it. Their evidence throws light on three broad areas: women’s experiences of conflict, the impact of conflict on gender relations, and women’s participation in the political arena and in particular in peace initiatives.

Writers in this book have few illusions about women’s peace-loving nature, since several describe how both women and men took part in or encouraged violence, often turning against neighbours. Dahabo Isse, for example, describing her attempts to set up secure feeding centres for malnourished adults and children in Mogadishu, shows how threatened the clan structures were by this strategy, and how both male and female clan members resented her for undermining their interests. Halimo Elmi describes scenes from Mogadishu of women mobilising their menfolk to take up arms and fight. The extent of women’s involvement as war activists through, for example, financial backing for certain warlords, paid for through remittances and the sale of personal possessions, is an under-researched aspect of the war. Speaking to women at a peace conference in 1997, Fadumo Jibril summarised the situation: ‘Let us not pretend innocence… Women have empowered and encouraged their husbands, their leaders and their militia to victimise their fellow countrymen.’26 Even less is known about the small minority of women who took up arms alongside men both in the civil war and as part of the armed liberation struggle of the 1980s.

However, the testimonies in this book also show time and again that women’s response to violence and misfortune is often to provide assistance, whatever the cost to themselves. Women like Halimo Elmi, a midwife who after settling in eastern Somaliland provided the only medical services for miles around, or Noreen Mariano, who helped restore Hargeisa maternity hospital and organised women to take part in community rebuilding, have ensured the provision of basic medical and social services at a time when all else was destroyed. Their work has been critical in preserving life and in facilitating the huge task of social reconstruction facing Somalia and Somaliland.

Many women have become involved in trade and commerce, as Amina Warsame describes. They are meeting their obligations to ensure food security for their families, but in ways that require new skills and a new spirit of entrepreneurialism and independence. Moreover, women’s trading activities are providing retail and financial services throughout the country, and hence supporting food security at a national level.