Under the high ceilings of Lancaster House, in a grand hall packed with representatives from the UK Government, INGOs and Somali civil society, Deqa Salad stands out. It is April and we are guests of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for a briefing on the forthcoming London Somalia Conference, a high level event which will convene Heads of State, Governments, the UN and other international organisations to discuss Somalia’s future. With a striking red hijab and contagious laugh, the charismatic founder of the women’s empowerment Hear Women Organisation exudes energy and genuine warmth. She is the kind of person who makes others want to be on her team and is surrounded by a group of enthusiastic diaspora colleagues.
Deqa is one of a growing number of figures from the Somali diaspora and civil society who are building a steady momentum around women’s participation in public life in their home country. Following elections in Somalia in November 2016 in which 24% of appointed Parliamentary MPs were women, the movement is targeting the London Somalia Conference on May 11 to highlight the role of women in advancing peace and security. Their focus is timely: the conference aims to achieve commitments by the Federal Government of Somalia and international community to improve security in the country, economic development and – of particular interest to women’s groups – political reform and governance.
This week, at the Regent’s London University, ahead of the conference, Deqa used her network to gather members of the Somali diaspora, female role models including serving Somali Parliamentary MPs, diplomats, activists, and members of Somalia’s vibrant civil society. Active participation at the event by representatives of the Somalia and UK Governments indicates the political level at which this movement is being noticed. The recommendations generated will be fed directly into the conference. Deqa explains:
“We want to shine a light on women diaspora contributions to the political process and communicate the need for women to be more active. We want to inform the Somali Government and the international community that we are here to work with them to achieve one person one vote.”
The barriers to Somali women’s participation in political life are multiple, spanning socio-cultural, economic, financial, security-related and structural obstacles. In place of universal suffrage in Somalia, the electoral system is clan-based. Clan leaders select the 325 MPs who make up the Somalia Federal Parliament by nominating two or three MPs from their own clan. The number of women in Parliament therefore depends on the willingness of male clan leaders to support their candidacy.
In a previous London Somalia Conference of 2013, the Federal Government of Somalia committed to encouraging a 30% quota of women MPs in the 2016 Parliament. Although that commitment was made at an international meeting, women from Somalia are keen to emphasise that the desire for women’s political participation is home-grown.
Above: Surer Abshir Musse speaking at the event hosted by the FCO, with Sir Nicholas Kay, FCO Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa
“We want to get away from this idea that the international community is imposing this,” says Surer Abshir Musse, a Somali female elder and former diplomat to the UK who ran for selection in the 2016 Parliamentary elections.
“It is one of the excuses used by elders – that it’s imposing on our community. But it’s not true. We asked for it. We decided to run – we wanted this. If the international community can support us in this, it would be good.”
Women like Surer serve as inspiration for the younger generation. Dahaba Ahmed is the Founder of the Voice of Somali Women’s Movement and one of a cohort of young female students campaigning to run as MPs in the 2020/21 elections. Dahaba, addressing the diaspora event from Mogadishu, said:
“There are many obstacles that I face as a woman including social pressure. Society and families lack awareness about women’s ability. They believe men can do a better job and are stronger positioned to take up political posts, and that the role of women is to stay at home.”
One of this women diaspora network’s recommendations is the need to increase national dialogue about women in public life and to change attitudes. Halima Yare, the female Chair of Somalia’s National Independent Electoral Commission and another role model for young Somali women, feels this strongly. Speaking from Mogadishu, Halima says:
“A roll-out of public awareness programmes would enable a national dialogue on the role of women in the political process. This should include government officials, religious and traditional leaders, women groups, donor agencies and citizens.”
Financial constraints also pose a barrier to women’s participation in public life. Many women have limited education and therefore options for earning an income. This economic disadvantage means that financing a political campaign is currently beyond the reach of women without the assistance of family or other supporters. As such, projects aimed at increasing women’s capacity to earn, save and purchase assets (a key pillar of CARE’s programming and the foundation for its Village Savings and Loan Associations in Somalia), is also highlighted by Somali women as a crucial enabler. Halima says:
“Intervention programmes by the Government and donor agencies to the small and micro-enterprises sector are important to enable women’s economic empowerment.”
Women who are financially literate can generate income, even while they are expected to maintain domestic duties, and there is increasing recognition among communities that this is good for poverty reduction overall. The contribution that women can make towards conflict resolution and peace efforts is further argued as a reason for greater participation of women. As mothers, wives and sisters of fighters and potential recruits to violent extremist groups, women are significant.
Internationally, the inclusion of women in peace processes raises the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years by 20 per cent, and the likelihood of it lasting at least 15 years by 35 per cent.
Within Somali society, however, the response to increased female political participation remains mixed. Surer Abshir Musse says:
“The majority of men, especially the young, welcome an educated and trustworthy woman running for office, but others resent women participating in politics.”
Negative attitudes can be dangerous, and despite stabilisation gains over the last few years, security remains an issue which impacts on women’s political participation. A recent report undertaken for the African Union Mission in Somalia found that women can be threatened and even killed by militia or political opponents if they contest leadership positions.
Yet in spite of the obstacles, the achievement of milestones such as a 24% share of Parliamentary MPs shows that progress is possible. As Deqa Salad says:
“I’m very optimistic because the women are on the march now. There is no way that the women won’t be successful – whether they’re helped or not.”
Read Suzy Madigan's first-hand account of the humanitarian crisis in Somalia in The Huffington Post