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Mogadishu—Fadumo, a Somali journalist, finally spoke to the media about being raped after her calls to the authorities fell on deaf ears.
She said she had been raped by two other journalists several months earlier. Two days after her interview was broadcast, police hauled her in for questioning. Three weeks later, a judge convicted her of defamation—based on a complaint filed by the alleged perpetrators—and sentenced her to six months of house arrest. When I spoke to her in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, she told me: “The most important thing for me now is to have my life back.”
In late 2012 a new government came to power in Somalia. Shortly after taking up office the new President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, committed to tackling the country’s rampant sexual violence and to carry out essential security sector and justice reforms.
Despite these commitments, Fadumo’s case is one of three high-profile Somali incidents of sexual violence Human Rights Watch documented in 2013 in which state security forces intimidated and sought to discredit women who reported rape.
In two of the cases, the new Somali government prosecuted the women reporting the rape.
In February 2013, an internally displaced woman, who said she was raped by government forces, and the journalist who interviewed her were prosecuted and convicted of tarnishing state institutions. They were eventually acquitted—after the journalist served 66 days in Mogadishu central prison. In August, another woman said that Somali soldiers abducted her and handed her over to African Union soldiers who raped her. A joint Somali and African Union mission high-level task force established to investigate the incident never published their findings or took any specific action. During the investigation, government intelligence agents intimidated and threatened the survivor and the service provider who offered medical support and a safe haven.
These three women’s lives were devastated, first by the rape, and then by the persecution they faced for speaking out.
Human Rights Watch’s new report, “‘Here, Rape is Normal,’ documents the ongoing crisis of rape in Mogadishu, particularly for internally displaced women and girls. We explain that the government can and should tackle Somalia’s epidemic of sexual violence by improving the security of vulnerable populations and ensuring survivors have access to medical assistance and judicial redress.
Somalia’s new government clearly faces daunting challenges given the scope of abuse and the extensive measures needed to address it. Many of the recommendations will take significant time and resources to implement. But preventing retaliation against victims who dare to speak out or against health service providers who are valiantly offering basic critical support is a crucial cost-free measure. It only requires the political will to make it happen.
Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the release of our report on Twitter, and said the FCO was looking at stepping up support for vulnerable groups. Given the UK’s role as a key donor to Somalia and the Foreign Secretary’s personal commitment to tackling conflict-related sexual violence, it should take the lead in pressing their Somali counterparts to make sure that the mistakes of 2013 are not repeated. In Mogadishu, a range of key government officials including ministers in the new cabinet pledged to act. Police officials committed to deploying competent police to the capital’s unprotected internally displaced people’s camps. Members of the government’s new ministry for human rights agreed their draft policy on gender equality needed to prioritize sexual violence. This is a sign of some progress. During a massive influx of internally displaced persons into Mogadishu during the 2011 famine in which there were increased reports of rape, the Somali authorities did little but deny the problem.
Despite these positive responses, we must ask, if the authorities were once again faced with a highly publicized or politicized case, would they react any differently? Would they focus on investigating the claims—or would the priority once again be on protecting the image of the state and silencing the victim?
During our meetings in Mogadishu we repeatedly heard the same refrain, “we will investigate credible allegations but seek to prevent false ones.” Given the huge obstacles and real dangers faced by women reporting rape, the government should not adopt the mindset that they are being bombarded with false rape claims.
Instead they should recognize the urgent need to build up strong and independent institutions capable of preventing rape and supporting victims.
Fadumo will never be able to return to her previous life, given both the physical and psychological impact of the rape and the stigma of her conviction. However, if the government works to establish an enabling environment for women to come forward about rape, allows all claims to be promptly investigated, and ensures that service providers working with victims of sexual violence are able to do their work, free of harassment, other women and girls in Somalia may yet escape Fadumo’s fate.
Laetitia Bader is Somalia researcher at Human Rights Watch. You can follow her @LaetitiaBader. She helped research the new report, “’Here, Rape is Normal’: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia.”