Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Somalia: Transforming Lessons into Actions

Published Date: 
Friday, December 5, 2014
Somali Women Development Center

By Sagal Sheikh-Ali

Sagal Sheikh-Ali is Program Coordinator at the Somali Women Development Centre (SWDC), Mogadishu. SWDC is a non-governmental and non-profit organization striving to minimize the number of women who are subjected to violence by empowering them through access to knowledge and greater economic independence as well as strengthening them socially by improving their standards of living and thereby that of their families as well.   

In March 2014, Sagal attended the WELDD workshop on Public and Political Participation held in Banjul, the Gambia.   Here, she reports on how the training helped her work at SWDC, and the organisation's commemoration of International Day of the Girl Child in particular.

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Problems Facing Somali Girls

Somali girls suffer unique difficulties in their early childhoods. More than two decades of chaos and political instability have made their lives difficult. Sexual violence and harmful traditional practices have made their situation even more miserable.

However, despite the challenges, Somali girls play an active role in their communities in general and in their families in particular. They take care of their younger brothers and sisters, they help their parents with the housework and more importantly they are also sometimes breadwinners for their families.

Because She is a Girl

Despite their successes, Somali girls always face discrimination within their communities simply because they are girls. The number of girls who attend schools in Somalia is very limited compared to boys. In addition to that, girls face harmful traditional practices such as FGM, which leave them with painful memories throughout their lives. One of the major and persistent reasons that girls drop out of school is forced and early marriage. Some girls have no opportunity to go to school in the first place.  One of the stories about traditional practices which force young girls in Somalia to face a harsh and hopeless life comes from Zahra, a girl we have worked with:

Zahra is a 15 year old girl  with a 50 year old husband. Her parents forced her to marry him for financial purposes but her life is much more difficult than before she was married. Zahra, who did not want to be photographed, told us that that her first baby would be born in the next 3 months. Zahra had never had the chance to attend school. “He told my parents that he would give me everything I needed but these have always been promises that have never been fulfilled.”

The WELDD Workshop

The five day WELDD workshop (March 2014) in Banjul, Gambia, provided significant training and knowledge on many aspects of the work that we do at SWDC. I learned more about what feminism means generally and also from a Muslim and Islamic perspective.

At the workshop I met activists who worked in similar fields to me in order to share knowledge and experiences that resonated with women’s conditions in Somalia. In one session participants shared their own experiences and strategies, which really gave insight into the best working practices. These discussions enabled me to share the lessons learnt at working at the grassroots level and with the most vulnerable people, and to learn about other participants’ perceptions and understandings. The workshop discussions, especially the one entitled “Violence against women in the name of religion, culture and tradition”, truly shed light on the most critical challenges we face, and the possible ways of confronting them.

After my return to Mogadishu and my work at SWDC I came to use many of the things I had learnt in Banjul.   Firstly, I took forward the ideas from Banjul to the workshops I gave on subjects such as gender based violence (GBV) and female genital mutilation (FGM), in Mogadishu with religious elders, and traditional and community mobilisers.  Another important way I used the training was in the organisation of SWDC’s commemorations of the International Day of the Girl Child

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Valuable lessons: participants at the WELDD public and political participation workshop in Banjul.

Our Commemoration 

As part of the International Day of the Girl Child on 11 October 2014, to promote the rights of young girls, and to address the inequalities faced by girls because of their gender, we organised a gathering in one of the biggest camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Somalia. 

SWDC spent time with the IDP girls whose voices are unheard because they are girls and are the most vulnerable group in the community. SWDC’s team visited Al-Cadala IDP camp on the outskirts of the largest community of IDPs. More than 100 girls from the local area came together and expressed their voices and their rights to the world. Poverty and insecurity had forced these girls to flee from their original home towns.  When asked if they had  ever been to school, their answer was “we never had the opportunity to sit in a class”. Only very few of them were lucky enough to go Quranic Schools, known as Madrasah.

One of our staff explained the significance of equality to the girls, and encouraged them to stand up and speak out for their rights. The girls’ parents were also attending, and were empowered to stop inequalities between their own children.

My Voice, My Right, My Life

As part of the event, we printed strong messages on paper and distributed them to the girls to help them to tell the world what they needed, their concerns as well as their rights. Some girls were dancing and singing, sweets were distributed and a glimmer of hope could be seen on their faces. Moreover, the young girls showed their solidarity with their other sisters kidnapped in Nigeria by showing the hashtag sign #BringBackOurGirls.

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SWDC used their International Day of the Girl Child commemoration to show solidarity with the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.

The commemoration of International Day of the Girl Child is a prime example of how important my training in Banjul was. The training was an eye opener, as I found that so many of the issues faced here in Somalia were echoed in places such as in Gambia and Nigeria. It showed how women all have so much common despite geographical distances.  It gave me the right tools and perspective to share and evolve practice within my field.  Once I arrived back, I shared the topics learnt at Banjul with my colleagues at SWDC, and we even had a two day workshop to revise the knowledge gained.  This consolidated knoweldge was a great startign point for me and my colleagues to plan the  best ways to raise awareness among the most vulnerable, and how best to reach them.

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"Violence is not in our culture": Valuable lessons passed to the next generation

Read more from Sagal

Peace and Security
Political and Public Participation