Displaced women tell tales of rape and fear in Somalia

News Stories, 25 October 2007

© UNHCR/B.Bannon
Displaced women, such as these in a Galkayo settlement, face the threat of rape daily.

GALKAYO, Somalia, October 25 (UNHCR) When the two buses from Mogadishu finally reached Galkayo, everyone aboard felt relieved even though the road had been paved with militiamen robbing passengers at gunpoint and five women had been raped.

Once in Galkayo, the second largest city in Puntland in north-eastern Somalia, the women joined the belt of settlements sheltering displaced families that has grown around this city due to a recurrent civil conflict over the past 17 years. But although Galkayo's relative stability attracts civilians, sexual violence remains part of daily life in many settlements where internally displaced people (IDPs) gather.

After years of war, rape has become a threat to women in Somalia when they move along roads, due to the presence of militia at illegal roadblocks. They are also at risk in IDP settlements located on the outskirts of towns such as Galkayo, which are too isolated to be secure.

In the IDP settlement where 33-year-old Hibo* lives in Galkayo, security has improved slightly since a small police station was built nearby, but she said three women were still assaulted each night. "One evening, armed thugs came and began to beat my sister, trying to drag her out," she told UNHCR. "I shouted so loudly that it attracted several neighbours and the gunmen ran away."

As a widow with no man to protect her and no solid door to lock, she was a prime target for rapists. As she talked, a teenager living in the settlement proudly made gestures with a large stick. "The moment I hear a woman shouting, I come with friends to chase away the bad guys," he said, even though his stick would be no match for an AK-47.

Hibo was expecting little help from the police. "They cannot do anything and the culprit might take revenge if I dare complain," she said.

On the other side of town, 45-year-old Hawa* did not go to the police even though she had been raped the night before while making her way to work at the butcher's before sunrise. Instead, she headed to a local women's non-governmental organization (NGO). As she belonged to a minority clan, she thought the police might be reluctant to act against her attacker, who belongs to a powerful local clan.

"The man held a knife under my throat and told me to open my legs," she told UNHCR. "Once he had raped me, he searched me and stole my purse. Then he spat on me and called me a whore." She was found by shopkeepers who brought her to the hospital. "Now my body hurts inside as well as outside and I am too afraid to ever walk back to work." Her rapist tried to enter her house the day after he had attacked her, but left quickly as her neighbours were close by. "I have nine children and no husband, so I came to this NGO hoping they could help me financially now that I cannot work," she said.

Softly holding Hawa's hand was Farhia, an aid worker who explained there was not much she could do due to a lack of funds. "All I can do is console raped women and encourage them to describe their ordeal so that they feel a little better," she said, before underlining that rape remained a strong taboo in Somali society. "A young woman who has been raped will not be able to find a husband, while a married woman is frequently thrown out by her husband," she explained.

Survivors who have been seriously hurt are sent to Maryan's women's clinic. A nurse, she said that rape had been a Somali disease ever since the central government collapsed 17 years ago. "Women are raped almost daily on the isolated outskirts of the town. We systematically do a tetanus shot; since young Somali women are genitally mutilated and infibulated, rapists always use a knife to rip their vagina open."

Blood transfusions are often needed since many victims are stabbed. "We also encourage them to talk because we want to make sure they won't commit suicide. But sometimes we find out the truth only when it is too late," Maryan said. "We cared for several pregnant women who looked perfectly normal. Once they delivered, they killed their baby. This is how we understood that they had been raped."

In a society where rape is taboo, perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. Cases are usually dealt with through traditional means, with the attacker having to pay compensation to the victim's father or husband, but never to her. "When raped women come, they are so ashamed that they feel as if they were already dead," the nurse explained.

To ensure survivors of sexual violence receive support, a network of UN agencies including UNHCR, UNFPA and UNICEF has launched a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) prevention and response plan. It is meant to be implemented with local partners, such as medical providers and civil society organizations, to strengthen health-care capacities, train local psycho-social counsellors and raise awareness about sexual violence in Galkayo. Awareness-raising is being further strengthened to support local efforts to prevent SGBV from occurring in the first place. The plan will build upon local NGOs, where fully committed Somali men and women intend to put an end to sexual violence.

Galkayo hosts an estimated 50,000 internally displaced persons.

By Catherine Weibel in Galkayo, Somalia

* The names of survivors have been changed

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