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Feature: For some Somali women opposing genital mutilation has a price

Feature: For some Somali women opposing genital mutilation has a price

Somali women who dare opposing female genital mutilation are facing harassment and threats in the country's traditionalist communities that brand them as "witches" and "traitors." But despite many odds the women are beginning to make some progress.
7 July 2003
Somali social worker Hawa Aden stands in front of a girls' school and community centre being built with UNHCR's help.

GALKAYO, Somalia (UNHCR) - Hawa Aden has been called a witch. She and her women colleagues have been labelled traitors to Somali culture and the Islamic religion, and had Friday sermons preached against them in the local mosque. They've been bombed, had their car destroyed and part of their compound torn down by angry local residents.

Their "crime"? Hawa and the other women who run the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development are educating girls and women, trying to empower Puntland women, and fighting against female genital mutilation, as well as agitating for peace in a country long wracked by war. After four years in business, the centre, partially funded by UNHCR, is winning small victories in its uphill battle in a deeply traditional society. "They used to call me a witch before, now they call me 'aunt'," Hawa says with a smile.

In the north-east part of the county called Puntland, Hawa is fighting to improve the very low status of women in Somali society. Ironically, since civil war broke out in the country following the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, women have become the chief breadwinners of their families, but their economic, social and political standing remains low.

Many Somali men are unemployed, their government and other white-collar jobs having disappeared with the civil war. Women have opened teashops, or sell produce in the market - jobs men would not deign to do - and earn the small sums that enable their families to scrape by.

"During the war, women were the ones who shouldered all the responsibility, not only for the immediate family, but for the whole extended family," says Hawa, sitting in a garden in the Galkayo Education Centre, a haven whose tranquility these days belies its turbulent history. "Until today, women are the ones who shoulder all the responsibilities, but there's little recognition.

"Women have absolutely no status in decision-making," she continues. "Women are excluded from economic participation. No one gives them loans. It's okay for them to sell tomatoes and charcoal, but no one will be happy to see a woman in an executive office."

She's optimistic that the lessons girls learn in the classrooms of the centre - peace education and the fight against female genital mutilation, for example, are woven into standard classroom subjects - will pay future dividends. But at the same time, she's impatient. "I don't want to wait 20 years," Hawa says. "I want improvement today for those who should participate" in the economic and political life of the country.

Her centre is one of a number of organizations UNHCR supports in Puntland that are trying to improve the lives of women. In Bossaso, one UNHCR partner, the Somalia Reunification Women's Union, works for economic and political empowerment of women to help raise their social status. In Gardo, a town south of Bossaso, UNHCR helps fund GARWODO, the Gardo Women's Development Organization. "We are empowering women through education, child care, literacy for all women, and income-generating activities," explains Sahra Farah Mahamoud, one of the leaders of the group. "All of this is preparatory work for our future political involvement."

Simone Wolken, UNHCR Representative for Somalia, is full of admiration for the women of the country. "Either in Somalia, or in exile, they held families together and did everything to help their families survive, despite war and destruction. They never gave up." Now, she believes, they are coming into their own. "Despite the many challenges, in peaceful areas like Puntland, women can now make their mark in reconciliation and reconstruction," says Wolken. "Education and awareness of rights are cornerstones in this regard, and UNHCR is doing all it can to support this."

Economist Dahir Mohamed Ismail, a consultant to another UNHCR partner in Gardo, Ecological Preservation Association, feels strongly that "women are the best asset we have. The men only chew; they don't contribute anything to society," he adds, referring to the widespread Somali habit of chewing qat, a natural amphetamine that puts many male Somalis into a stupor and robs them of ambition and the will to work.. "We believe anything being given to Somali people should be through the women," says Dahir. "Otherwise it goes straight to the qat market."

Abdullahi F. Ali, a 57-year-old Somali man who recently returned to farm in Gardo after 30 years in the United States, was struck by the way Somali women have stepped up to do any job that can support their families, while the men remain idle. "Without women, this country would be nothing," he says emphatically. "Women are saving society."

Back in Galkayo, that's the type of sentiment that keeps Hawa and her colleagues at the Education Centre for Peace and Development going. "The centre has many challenges," she says. "But we are determined. We are committed to really continue, to be patient and not run away. We keep saying: women have a right to participate politically."