Because war-makers from Siad Barre onwards have used the clan system as a weapon and a shield, a person’s fate has largely been determined by his or her clan identity. Numerous Somali women, including many of the contributors to this book, are partners in exogamous marriages and therefore do not belong to the clan of their husbands, the fathers of their children, nor to the clan of their sons and daughters. By implication their fathers and brothers also belong to different clans from that of their husbands, their children’s uncles, their son-in-laws. The impact of the war on such families has been immense and cruel. Clan and family have been brought into opposition, forcing apart individuals despite their love and loyalty for one another. One of the most common tragedies has been the prolonged separation of wives and husbands, children and their parents as the family members seek survival by fleeing to the traditional ‘safe areas’ of their clan groups or abroad. For some the escape is from a situation where clan-fuelled conflict has turned their neighbours, friends and even their own relatives into potential enemies.

Women interviewed in Erigavo in 1994 recounted an experience shared by many women: having escaped from the main inter-clan conflict of 1991-92 in Mogadishu, and reached the relative safety of the rural clan territory, they faced another outbreak of war but this time it was between sub-clans of the same clan and there was no where left to run to. Women described their distress at a war in which husbands were fighting against fathers-in-law, sons against maternal uncles. To bring an end to this conflict in which their closest kin were killing one another in acts of sub-clan loyalty and diya group revenge, the women of Erigavo, representing different clans and sub-clans, collectively exploited their extensive network of male relatives spanning the clan and sub-clan structure. By persuading and reasoning with male relatives, they managed to influence attitudes enough whereby the clan elders agreed to sit together and discuss a way of ending the conflict. Eventually a peace agreement was reached.

Women at the centre of peace

What occurred in Erigavo demonstrates that women can be an important channel for communication between conflicting parties. They can act to influence both sides in a conflict and may be used as emissaries, whereas a man’s influence will tend to be limited to his patrilineal relatives.

A woman’s network of significant relationships is likely to span several lineage and clan divisions in the clan system. Women said this cross-clan network of relations was important to their attempts to bring an end to conflict, and it was one that they exploited collec­tively. Another factor was that Somali society has few class distinctions and people mix freely together without feeling self-conscious about their differences. ‘Within one family you may come across a senior academic and an illiterate, a successful businessman or woman and a small stall owner, a nomad and a city dweller, an ambassador or a highly placed government official and a non-governmental employee.’ (Hassan etal 1995). Thus, acting collectively, women rep­resenting a range of income and livelihood groups had been able to ‘reach’ all levels of society from the grassroots to religious leaders, business people, politicians and warlords as well as all sides of the war.