WMC Women Under Siege

No longer a ‘private’ matter, rape in Somaliland may soon be criminalized. But women say there’s still a long way to go.

Raqiya Ahmed’s hope had begun to wane. As a health worker in Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared state of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa, she’d handled countless cases of rape over the years. Sexualized violence has long been an issue in her country, but recently, she had begun to feel especially helpless. As she saw rapists continue to walk free, she felt that the safety of women and girls was growing more dangerous by the day.

So when part of Somaliland’s parliament approved its first-ever bill criminalizing rape—a landmark decision that was celebrated around the world earlier this month—Ahmed felt relieved to finally see change.

“Women in Somaliland, especially younger women and girls, are now beginning to have hope for a better future,” 25-year-old Ahmed said of the bill, which is the country’s first piece of legislation to address sexualized violence.

Heba fled economic misery in Ethiopia and came to Hargeisa in search of a better life. But four men raped her in her job as a housemaid. Unless a new bill is fully passed and signed, what happened to Heba remains lawful. (Video still via UNHCR)

The bill is long overdue. Rape has not been a criminal offense in Somaliland, and survivors have rarely granted any form of justice. The victim’s family is even able to force them to marry their rapist in order to avoid shame within their community.

Now, rapists in Somaliland would potentially face up to 30 years in prison. The bill also seeks to criminalize other forms of sexualized violence, including assault, trafficking, and child marriage. Advocates are hoping the bill will be signed into law in early March. It could therefore be the first major legislation signed by President Musa Bihi Abdi, who was elected in November. Somaliland declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991, but is still seen as an autonomous region of Somalia by the international community. Unlike Somalia, Somaliland’s record of peaceful, mostly transparent elections marks it as one of the strongest democracies in the region.

Despite this growing democracy, women are still left behind. Ahmed and other women in Somaliland are wary of the outcome of the next stage of the bill, which still needs approval from the conservative upper house. They also point out that the bill fails to specifically address domestic violence or female genital mutilation.    

“Although this is a huge milestone achieved by Somaliland women, there is still a long way to go to get it passed by the house of elders, and before the president signs it into law,” said Nafisa Yusuf Mohamed, the executive director of a Hargeisa-based group called NAGAAD, Somaliland’s leading advocates on behalf of women and children.

Somaliland women and girls, especially those who are internally displaced as a result of drought in the region, suffer from various forms of violence and exploitation. Ahmed provides psychological support and medical assistance to victims of sexualized violence. She said she recently helped two girls, aged 10 and 8, who had both been raped.

“Somaliland is a growing country with a huge population,” Ahmed said of its 3.5 million citizens. “Every day, I see how it’s our many women and children who are the most vulnerable to being targeted with sexual abuse.”

The bill comes after years of campaigning led by Ahmed and other women’s rights advocates across Somaliland. NAGAAD first began to develop a strategy for the law in 2011. Parliament conducted hearings on the bill in 2015, but it wasn’t until January 6 that 46 of the 51 Members of Parliament present approved the Sexual Offenses Bill.

But even if the bill were to pass, campaigners are also concerned the authorities will be reluctant to install it as law.

Somaliland’s clan elders serve as the country's alternative to the judicial system. The elders, also known as the Guurti, are a group of unelected, male leaders tasked to “keep the peace.” They attempt to “solve” criminal acts and disputes outside of a courtroom instead, often dismissing complaints of gender-based violence as a “private” matter.

However, the new bill would criminalize mediation and other attempts to solve rape cases outside the court system. Ayan Mahamoud, Somaliland’s representative in Britain, is optimistic it will mark an overhaul of the country’s approach to women’s rights as well as its legal system.

“The first step is to get this bill through the upper house, before we begin to try and shift the country’s view on sexual violence altogether,” he said.

“Just today, there was a rape of a young woman,” Mahamoud added. “We don't have the legal structure or specialist services to fully offer support to victims like her yet. But we’re getting there.”

More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Somaliland, Rape, Law



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.