Content warning: r*pe, sexual assault
I love Puntland, in its little corner of Somalia. I love the people who fight through famine, war and division. The ocean that laps its land. The dark desert where camels roam. Our Islamic way of life. But I weep for the women and girls and the dangers they face. And I want more for them and for us. COVID-19 is an epidemic but it is merely the newest. Sexual violence has haunted the lives of women and girls in Somalia for centuries. It is an omnipresent threat in our lives. My organization, Somali Gender Justice, fights for the women and girls who experience this violence, and advocates for change in our law and society.
Making matters worse, survivors of sexual assault have limited recourse to services like emergency contraception and safe abortion after assault. Even when bad things happen to us, Somali girls are expected to be passive, quiet and subservient.
Somali Gender Justice got funding from the Safe Abortion Action Fund to study the issue of sexual assault and safe abortion access in Somalia, and to take initial steps to see how we can change things. We conducted focus groups. We interviewed doctors, Ministry officials, Parliamentarians, and even survivors of sexual violence and their families, to understand the issue deeper. This was very sensitive research to do. However, we felt very strongly that the voices of rape survivors themselves should be heard. What we found was not surprising:
Survivors and their families feel deep shame after a sexual assault.
Women who had been raped told us they feel like it was their fault – like they couldn’t trust anyone with their story, and that services wouldn’t be available to them. They waited weeks, or even months to approach someone about what had happened. As one put it to us:
“When a Somali woman is raped, she always keeps silent and is ashamed to seek health services. Even if she is in urgent need, she prefers death.”
Social institutions don’t adequately support girls after assault.
Official institutions in Somalia don’t keep statistics on sexual assault and rape. This makes it extremely difficult to understand the pervasiveness of this epidemic. A lack of credible data also undermines efforts to do anything about it. The clinics where survivors might go for services lack even basic services like rape kits, STI tests and emergency contraception. As a result, the doctors said that many survivors seek abortion via traditional midwives because of the confidentiality granted to them. However, this can be ineffective or at worst, harmful to the woman’s health.
Islam, and Somalia, is not settled on the matter of abortion – and can be open to interpretation.
All the subject matter experts believed that abortion violates Islamic law and therefore Somali society, as Islamic law is embedded in all aspects of our life. However, the religious leaders we talked to said that there are multiple interpretations based on when the soul enters the foetus. One of them told us:
“Most sheikhs agree if the foetus is less than forty days and pregnancy was related to rape, abortion is allowed. Because still the foetus has no soul. But if the foetus is 4 months old or beyond, abortion is prohibited because Allah has given the foetus soul. The third opinion is where the strongest difference lies. When the foetus is older than one month and less than four months, some accept abortion while others do not.”
All of this shows an enormous challenge but also opportunity, if we are only to seize it.
Here are our recommendations for action.
1. Pass legislation to allow survivors access to abortion services in Somalia.
In an effort to save the lives of girls, and promote justice for survivors, we urgently recommend Puntland’s government to pass a law supporting the rights of women and girls to safely access abortion following pregnancy that is a result of rape. Given Islam’s flexibility on this issue, we would urge the government to work in conjunction with religious and community leaders to pass such a law within the context of Somali culture and Islam.
2. Provide a range of services to women and girls after sexual assault.
All survivors deserve access to kits containing post-exposure prophylaxis for STIs and emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy occuring. These services must be provided without stigma and in total confidentiality.
3. Shift the practices of traditional midwives.
Traditional midwives are trusted individuals with knowledge passed down through many decades. However, their services can often risk the lives of women and girls through the use of unproven medications. Therefore, we propose to work in conjunction with traditional midwives to promote good hygiene, link them with state institutions who have evidence-based rape kits and the ability to provide safe abortion.
4. Destigmatize abortion and shift social and gender norms in Somalia.
Women and girls should never have to experience ‘double victimization’. They should never experience both sexual assault and the stigma and shame that comes with seeking legal and health services. We must put the onus squarely on unequal social and gender norms and those institutions – our courts, our police, our health systems – which reinforce them.
The full report will be available soon. Please follow our Facebook page for updates. I want to thank the brave women and girl survivors of rape who spoke to us for this study. You inspire us with your words and we hope to do better for you in the years to come.
Somali Gender Justice is a grantee partner of the Safe Abortion Action Fund.