Women’s Experiences of the War
‘Colka ninka soo arkay iyo kan loogo warama si ugama wada cararaan.’
Somali proverb, which translates as ‘the one who experiences
conflict and the one who hears about it will have different fears’.1
During a workshop in 1997 which brought together the contributors of this book, women from various regions of Somalia shared their experiences of the war. Many had witnessed people being killed, mostly men, including their closest relatives. Some had been present when women and girls were being raped. Many had lost everything, their homes looted and destroyed. Some described how they had to act as a ‘shield’ for the men and children in their families, lying about their clan identity, paying bribes and helping families cross from one side of Mogadishu to the other. Some had moved many times within Mogadishu to escape danger, and all had eventually left the city for other parts of Somalia or neighbouring countries. These experiences were not exceptional; hundreds of thousands of women and men and children across Somalia have been through similar ordeals.
Part 1 presents first-hand accounts of women’s experiences (others appear later in the book). How war has affected women, individually and collectively, economically, socially and politically, is examined in Part 2. But as essential background for understanding the impact of the war on women, Part 1 also includes two chapters that locate women’s experiences in the context of women’s social position in Somali society. The first is an ethnographic description of the life of women in nomadic pastoral society, and the second is an examination of marriage within this society. These ‘normative’
descriptions are in stark contrast to the personal testimonies and Chapter 3, an account of war-crimes committed against women.
Women’s experiences of conflict
Do women experience conflict differently from men? Are women the unnoticed victims of war? Both questions have been hotly debated and contested. A recent World Bank conference presented a strong case for viewing women as targets of male abuse during conflict, and an equally cogent case for emphasising women’s active participation in conflict, their resilience in the face of violence and upheaval, and the view that both men and women are victimised by war.2 UNIFEM’s recent review of the global evidence on women and war drew in sharp relief the horrors experienced by women in war:
knowing all this did not prepare us for the horrors women described. … We heard accounts of gang rapes, rape camps and mutilation. Of murder and sexual slavery. We saw the scars of brutality so extreme that survival seemed for some a worse fate than death.3
Proponents of all these arguments will find evidence to support or oppose their views in the pages of this book. There can be no doubting the terror experienced by ordinary Somalis nor the devastating consequences for women. Unusually, this book presents the experiences of professional women, reflecting both their personal experiences and their professional observations. Habiba Osman, Amina Sayid and Shukri Hariir present harrowing pictures of the mass exodus of families from major towns, fleeing in the face of extreme violence yet risking their lives to keep together and assure each others’ protection (see also Halimo Elmi’s testimony in Part 2). A common feature of these accounts is the need to be always on the move to be safe. Midwives Habiba and Halimo describe the consequences of flight for pregnant women, with stress-induced labour often taking place in the absence of facilities or even elementary security and privacy. They note the lack of medicines and treatment facilities, the health problems caused by lack of access to water, and the secondary consequences of these in terms of general ill-health, as well as the direct impact of violence.
The proposition that in wars women become targets for abuse centres on rape as a weapon of warfare. In Somalia rape is at once abhorred by clan values (as described by Rhoda Ibrahim in her chapter on Somali pastoral society, Chapter 1) and yet integrally linked to behaviour that the clan system can engender in its most destructive form. Amina Sayid’s testimony reveals the vulnerability of the relatively powerless non-clan based groups such as her own community in Brava, reflected in the extent of sexual violence endured by women in that community. Fowzia Musse’s description of the rape epidemic in Kenyan refugee camps reinforces testimony from other writers in the book about the viciousness with which rapes were carried out. She also shows how both the act of rape itself and the way it is dealt with after the event were part and parcel of inter-clan relations: in prosecuting rapists clan authorities are inclined to seek the best outcome for the clan rather than for women. Fowzia’s chapter notes that rape in ‘normal times’ and rape in warfare are defined differently by Somali society. She comments on the need for assistance to raped women to be adapted to the social and cultural environment.