The renascent women’s movement in Somalia and Somaliland is severely constrained by the lack of educated women in the country. There are few women who feel sufficiently confident about their skills and experience to stand for political positions, for example – not that inadequate skills and experience ever seems to prevent large numbers of men standing for, and attaining, such positions. Somali women have always had limited access to education but from the 1980s onwards the educated women in Somalia largely left the country to seek asylum in the diaspora. The war resulted in the complete collapse of the state education system across the country. As a result many young women (and men) who are now in their late teens and twenties have had no educational opportunities.

One potential source of energy and skills that may have the capacity to transform the future of women’s rights in Somalia and Somaliland are the women and girls currently in the diaspora.

Living in the diaspora as a refugee is usually a difficult and stressful experience but one which has enabled many thousands of girls and women to access educational and training opportunities which would not have otherwise been available to them. As long as violent insecurity and high unemployment persist in Somalia there will be little to attract women back from the diaspora, where many are earning a living and supporting their dependants through school as well as remitting money to relatives back home.

In Somaliland at least, the pattern seems to be that those women who choose to return are older women whose children have completed school and remain independently in the diaspora; those who are younger and still have children at school stay in the diaspora. Not surprisingly perhaps, few educated young Somali women appear to be opting for a return to ‘traditional’ life in Somalia or Somaliland.23

Women who have returned from the diaspora to Somaliland, sometimes intending to stay just a few months, are proving invaluable sources of inspiration and leadership in many sectors, from commerce to community development. Sharing and combining their skills and experience with those of other women together they create a powerful challenge to the status quo in Somali society.