Men made mess of Somalia, now women want to fix it

BAIDOA, Somalia: This photo taken on Nov 16, 2016 shows a Somali woman celebrating after the results of an election were announced. — AFP
BAIDOA, Somalia: This photo taken on Nov 16, 2016 shows a Somali woman celebrating after the results of an election were announced. — AFP

MOGADISHU: Raped, abused and subjected to genital mutilation, many women suffer terribly in Somalia, an unrepentantly patriarchal country shown by successive surveys as one of the worst places to be female. A quota reserving 30 percent of parliamentary seats for women in current elections is supposed to help bring change and place at least a share of political power in female hands – but it faces stiff resistance. “Somali women participate in daily life but when it comes to politics it is challenging,” said Deqa Yasin, the female deputy head of the national election organizing body. “How do you make the process as inclusive as possible?”

Under international pressure, Somalia’s top politicians – federal and state leaders, all men, known as the National Leadership Forum – in August announced the 30 percent female quota be applied to the 54 Senate seats and the 275 parliamentary seats. The quota also applies to the 14,025 electoral college delegates who are the only people out of perhaps 12 million Somalis to vote for members of parliament.

After years of strife, political wrangling and insecurity mean the Horn of Africa nation was unable to hold elections by universal suffrage. But promises of female empowerment have not been kept. As of Thursday, just 23 of 142 parliamentary seats (16 percent) and 10 out of 43 senate seats (23 percent) had been won by women. The previous unicameral parliament had 14 percent women, so the fresh figures are a small improvement. It is unclear what, if anything, might be done when the final tally falls short of the quota.

Men, Guns, Money

Clan and tradition are at the heart of Somalia’s electoral process, which means women are not. The 51 members of each electoral college that votes for a given parliamentary seat are themselves chosen by a group of 135 traditional male elders. In what has been called a “limited” election, the senators and MPs – once all elected – will come together to vote for a new president, but the planned date of November 30 will not be met.

Faced with the ruling on a female quota, many clan leaders do not wish to be represented by women and regard female seats as wasted. Some of the many delays in the election timetable have been caused by arguments and horse-trading over which clan would have to allow one of its precious seats to be reserved for a woman. The reluctance means that the 30 percent quota is unlikely to be met, said Michael Keating, the UN’s top representative in Somalia.

Despite the challenges “there’s been a slight change of political culture” because of it, with more women involved than in the past, according to Keating. Decades of conflict have played a role. A secular dictatorship in which women held public posts was overthrown in 1991 by a loose alliance of clan-based militias with warlord bosses under whom women were increasingly repressed.  Men – usually with guns and always after money – have ruled since that time and presided over Somalia’s collapse into the world’s preeminent failed state.

‘We are Not Unique’

Some argue that the time has come to give women a chance to remedy the situation. Miriam Aweis, 46, won a seat reserved for women in the port city of Kismayo. She said that during the long years of war, women were “the backbone of the community” yet “the traditional system we have” excludes them from politics. As minister for women in 2011, Aweis was an early fighter for a quota of females in politics. “We had to talk to the politicians to get them to accept that women are part of this process and decision-making,” she said.

When six of Somalia’s federal states submitted initial lists of candidates for the regionally-based Senate, some included notorious warlords – but no women – showing a lack of willingness even to pay lip service to female involvement in politics. UN complaints about the warlords were ignored, but the all-male lists were sent back for breaking the electoral rules, said Yasin at the election committee. “I can’t change the Somali mindset or culture, but rules and regulations are the weapons I have,” she said. “It’s Somali culture but it’s in other cultures as well: America just elected Trump. We are not unique.” – AFP

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