By LISA SHANNON
“Why did you come here when no one else does?” The African Union communications director asked us over dinner at its compound in Mogadishu. Good question. We were warned against it, especially by war-zone regulars. It’s been called the most dangerous city—or place—on earth. In fact, we had to delay our trip for two weeks due to multiple suicide bombings and riots inside the area controlled by Mogadishu’s transitional government (TFG). So, why go? I gave the short answer, “We’re supporting a local social entrepreneur in launching a sexual violence hotline.”
But the real answer was more complicated. Somalia bothers me. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident was tragic not only for the loss of United States servicemen, but because many experts credit this loss with a shift in American public sentiment and policy toward mass atrocity in Africa. In effect, we collectively flipped off our empathy switch, approaching African crises like Rwanda, Congo and Darfur as “Operation Not Worth It.” But no country has been more written off than Somalia. And in Somalia, no group has been more written off than women.
When I initially inquired about helping women in Somalia a few years ago, Washington DC-based policy experts told me, “No one goes to Somalia.” So I let it go. Then a few a months ago, I met Katy Grant, co-founder of Prism Partnerships, a non-profit that links donors with local social entrepreneurs in several African countries, including Somalia. The 38-year-old British mother of three had traveled to Somalia on humanitarian missions more than 40 times in five years, including during two pregnancies.
Katy was proof positive that working in a place most aid groups deemed too risky was, in fact, possible. The two of us traveled to Mogadishu earlier this week to help launch a new women’s program with a local social entrepreneur. After leaving the African Union- secured area, we wove through the sun-bleached, sand-and-rubble strewn back alleys of Mogadishu’s bombed-out Kilometer Four neighborhood. We reached the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, where we were greeted by director Fartun Abdisalaan Adan.
Fartun’s husband was murdered in 1996 for his human rights work. She escaped to Canada to raise her three daughters, but in 2007, when her girls were old enough to live on their own, Fartun moved back to Mogadishu to continue Elman’s work. “I still worry. My husband got killed.” Fartun told me. “Every day I get home at night and am relieved, okay, today we are safe. But I take the risk.”
Recently, survivors of gender violence have begun to flock to Fartun and the Elman Center for refuge, and to participate in group counseling sessions over tea and snacks. The women of Somalia—recently named one of the five worst places to be female—face multi-layered issues: The culture devalues women, with rigid structures of inequality including near universal female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and economic dependence. Add to that the chaos of conflict, forcing women to pack up and run from here to there and back again to avoid flying bullets, daily struggles to keep their children alive amid food shortages, no access to health care, soaring maternal mortality rates, and total breakdown of access to livelihoods and coping mechanisms, all in the face of rampant sexual violence.
And then there is Al-Shabab. The radical, militant Islamic group linked to Al-Qaeda rules 90% of central and south Somalia with utter impunity. Not only do they abduct and imprison through forced marriage, terrorize and gang rape. If women complain, they are often accused of adultery and speaking against the brotherhood, punishable by death. The execution methods of choice: Stoning or beheading.
In our meeting at Elman, the first woman to share was petite 17-year-old Amina (not her real name). Her best friend, Hawa, who lived next door, helped with childcare and cooking duties. Then a foreign Shabab came to Hawa’s home and asked to marry her. Her father refused. They killed him. Shortly afterward, Amina was at home when she heard a commotion out front. She walked outside to find a group of Shabab higher-ups digging a hole. Amina watched as they dragged Hawa out of the house, shoved her in the hole, and slammed large rocks against Hawa’s head. She died. They buried her in the hole. Then last month, a Shabab followed Amina home. He pushed her inside her own hut, followed by five more Shabab. The six gang raped Amina in front of her younger siblings. She sees her attackers every day, and is now afraid to leave the house, afraid to sleep, afraid to go to the bathroom at night for fear of another attack.
And yet Amina has left the house, empowered by assistance by and support from Sister Somalia, a new program developed by Fartun, in collaboration with Prism Partnerships and my new organization, A Thousand Sisters. Sister Somalia was developed to support female Somali victims of gender based violence, like Amina, or Nadifa, who was gang raped in front of her children and then arrested for making “false accusations against the government.”
Sister Somalia offers the first sexual violence hotline in Mogadishu, which hopes to serve 300 women a year with counseling, medical services, business starter kits, and other assistance specific to a particular case. Amina’s assistance package, for example, will additionally include an emergency grant to relocate with her family, away from her attackers.
Each woman who walks through the door will also receive a letter from a “sister” abroad. We hope to raise $120,000 per year to make it happen. How is a broke activist like me planning to pull this off? Just like every stage of my journey with Congo, I don’t know exactly. But I’m betting we can find at least 1,000 Americans who would welcome the opportunity to show up for women in Somalia, through writing a letter or giving at least $10 per month.
Yes, Mogadishu is scary. Our security detail offered us our perfunctory flak-jackets like he was passing out after-dinner mints. But sitting in a room with these women smiling sweetly, fanning themselves with the colorful cards and photos sent through our first batch of supporters, Somalia did not feel like I expected. We spent many months in anxiety-ridden discussions about security risks, engaged in “is it worth it?” debates about a 24-hour trip.
Yet, Fartun chooses to face down death every single day. Amina, only 17 years old, crossed the frontlines of this war, alone, to talk with us. Every woman who spoke risked her life to do so, with the hope of help. As Katy pointed out in our many discussions, security may be the last frontier of equality: “Why do I deserve security, when another does not?” In hindsight, all my frantic measurements of risk seem self-congratulatory and, quite frankly, embarrassing. How could I have ever thought these women weren’t worth it?
In a place like Somalia, big picture solutions are scarce. Like in so many conflicts, women are caught between men with guns, shrouded in a culture of impunity, with no refuge. I asked the women what they would like to say to people around the world. They mumbled and echoed each other, quickly arriving at a single message. “We all have individual problems,” their appointed spokeswoman said. “But we all want support. And for people to hear us.”
Our visit was a first step. On our second day, Nadifa showed me her now sweat-worn letter that,since receiving it, she had kept tucked in her skirt, next to her belly, for comfort. As we said our goodbyes, I heard the women mumble between themselves and to us: Walala. Sister.
Lisa Shannon is author of the book A Thousand Sisters, and founder of Run for Congo Women and the new organization, A Thousand Sisters.
Source: The New York Times