LONDON (TrustLaw) - Somalia is the most dangerous country on earth to be a woman and a “living hell” for those struggling to feed their children amid war and drought, the country’s minister for women says.
The daily violence, the constant fear of getting shot or raped, the lack of education and healthcare as well as practices like female genital mutilation make women’s lives extremely hard, Maryan Qasim said.
The lawless country has been engulfed in conflict for 20 years. However, the greatest risk to women’s lives is not war but birth. One woman dies for every 100 births, according to U.N. figures – one of the highest rates in the world.
“The most dangerous thing a woman in Somalia can do is to become pregnant,” said Qasim, a former doctor . “When a woman becomes pregnant her life is 50:50 because there is no antenatal care at all …. there are no hospitals, no healthcare, nothing.”
Qasim, who has spent two decades in exile, said she was shocked by the destitution and suffering she saw when she returned to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu last year, after being asked to become minister for women's development and family welfare.
“Conflict has often seen husbands and fathers killed, removing breadwinners and creating countless numbers of single mothers,” Qasim told a briefing in London at the Chatham House think-tank.
“When I went back to Mogadishu the shocking thing was that the women have to do everything. They are the mothers, they bring up the children and they have to secure the income.”
Somalia has been without an effective central government since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Its U.N.-backed transitional government is embroiled in war with Islamist al Shabaab rebels who control swathes of the country and want to impose their own harsh version of sharia law on the nation.
Around 1.4 million people, mostly women and children, are displaced within Somalia after being forced to flee their homes.
Qasim said women had told her how their sons - boys of 12 and 13 - had joined al Shabaab simply to survive.
“You can see the sadness (of the mother). She tells you ‘I don’t have an alternative for him; no school, no food’. So this young boy, he goes to the militia just to get food and some money.”
Qasim said rape was a risk for many women, especially those who had been uprooted from their homes and those from minorities. The youngest victim she had seen was just five years old.
She also relayed a horrifying story in which a man high on drugs shot a woman’s husband and then made clear he was going to rape her. When the woman said she had just given birth the day before he seized her 11-year-old daughter.
Qasim said women’s health was also being seriously compromised by the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is carried out on almost all girls between the age of four and 10.
FGM, which is aimed at ensuring girls remain virgins until marriage, can cause difficulties in labour and is a factor behind the high rates of death in childbirth.
The minister said people used to be punished for performing FGM but now there were no laws and the practice had returned. Some 96 percent of women in Somalia have undergone FGM.
Qasim said she had come across cases of men divorcing new wives if they had not had FGM, so mothers continued the custom to protect their daughters from shame.
The minister, who was a school teacher in Britain until recently, stressed that one of the greatest needs for women was education.
“If women are not educated … I think definitely we cannot build a society …. I’ve met so many young girls and women in Mogadishu – you cannot imagine their appetite for education but they do not have that opportunity.”
The lack of rule of law – which means people kill and rape with impunity – and the misinterpretation of Islam both compound women’s oppression, the minister said.
“After the collapse of the Somali state so many groups and terrorists from all over the world came to Somalia and interpreted Islam as they liked – women cannot go outside, they cannot wear bras…. They do whatever they want and they say this is Islam, but it has nothing to do with Islam,” she said.
“It’s also a challenge when women themselves don’t know their rights. Sometimes they think it’s true and they say ‘oh, they know better than me.’ Women need to be educated to learn more about Islam and know more about their rights. And men need also to be educated.”
Despite the immense challenges ahead, Qasim said she was optimistic about the opportunities for women.
She cited examples of several women, including a doctor and a peace activist, who had done great things in the war-torn country.
And she pointed to the entrepreneurial spirit of the women who, despite having so little, had set up small businesses selling tea on the streets of Mogadishu from flasks.
“It’s not hopeless,” she said.