It was a typical Tuesday night in mid-July, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a video that shattered my heart. There in the video was a distressed Somali mother, rolling on the floor, tearful and in absolute agony. Her teenage daughter was raped in the Wajir County, north of Kenya where a large population of Somalis reside. Whilst the perpetrator was waiting for a court trial, the Somali community leaders intervened and attempted to solve the case through a clan-based customary law known as the ‘Xeer’ system. The reason the mother was so distressed was that the elders decided to resolve the issue by allowing the perpetrator to pay compensation through the form of money (which they divided amongst themselves) and he was then advised to move to another county. Neither the victim of the crime nor her family wished for that outcome and once again justice did not prevail.
The Somali people have a long history of resolving conflicts through this method, however, the voices of women and children are often absent and silenced. In the case mentioned above, the girl’s father was deceased and because she had no male relative to represent her, her mother’s pleas were ignored. The xeer system has often disadvantaged victims of sexual assault from marginalised backgrounds and those in unfortunate circumstances. Under this system, there have been many cases whereby men who are being investigated or been found guilty of sexual violence have been awarded impunity. This means that, if a woman or a child has been sexually assaulted, the clan members of the perpetrator have the option to pay the male relatives of the victim blood compensation through livestock such as camels.
Some of you might have heard of Aisha Ilyas Aden, the 12-year girl who was brutally gang-raped and murdered last year by three men in the city of Galkayo. Two of the men were sentenced to execution by a firing squad whilst the third one paid 75 camels to her family to secure his freedom. It’s despicable to think that authorities would allow such a matter to be heard by traditional elders through customary law. People even took it to social media to condemn the actions of the traditional elders and demanded justice through the hashtag #Justice4Aisha. To the traditional elders, Aisha’s life was only worth 75 camels. To seek monetary value from the trauma and death of a child has to be one of the lowest forms of human decency. A system like this where women and children are not recognised as their own legal authority and their rights are mandated by men without their input is inherently unjust. It only shows the rest of the population that the lives of children and women are not valued and their bodily integrity is not to be respected. These offenders who are a danger to society are being allowed to roam the public and could potentially prey on more children.
I genuinely think that however weak Somalia’s judicial system is, authorities should strike an iron fist and not encourage this culture of protecting perpetrators of sexual violence, especially when it’s at the cost of children’s safety and wellbeing. Rape and other forms of sexual violence should only be allowed to be mandated through a fair legal trial in order to obtain meaningful justice for victims and their families. This kind of approach would show offenders the seriousness in which such cases will be dealt with and perhaps deter potential perpetrators from engaging in such shameful behaviour. It would also lead to the larger Somali community abandoning in victim-blaming behaviours such as the stigmatisation of survivors. Most importantly, it would instil confidence in people to report their experiences to the authorities. Unfortunately, despite being grossly violated, injured, traumatised and at times stripped of their quality of life, the victim is often the ostracised from the community and perpetrators use this information to their advantage.
I recently, read that in Mogadishu a 6-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by her teacher. Later it was revealed that the same teacher had also previously assaulted two other students but the parents chose not to report the incident because of the stigma that will be cast on their family. It makes you wonder if one of the families had reported the teacher, the young girl, in this case, would not have been subjected to the assault and trauma she suffered. Although the father of the child was pressured to seek blood compensation, he chose to go through the court system and the perpetrator was sentenced to only two years in prison. This just goes to show that those who are brave enough to speak out encounter a weak legal justice system. For this very reason, some families feel that the best option is to receive compensation through customary law because at least they could gain something from the situation. By far, the worst scenario which still happens all across Somalia is cases where in order to hide the “shame” the family decides to marry their daughter off to her assailant. There’s a common belief that if a girl has been raped then she’s damaged, impure and no men will ever marry her. As punishment, her assailant is pressured to marry her when in reality she is the one being punished.
All across Somalia, as more heinous cases of sexual assault against children is brought to the forefront of public consciousness, momentum is being created and change is on the horizon. How much longer must we take it to the streets in protests or to social media with our pitchforks before we see that change? The root of the problem is that our culture has indefinitely highlighted that it does not prioritise sexual violence or other issues pertaining to children and women. In fact, I was absolutely shocked to learn that prior to 2016, sexual violence cases were handled under the Somali penal Code (1962) which is completely irrelevant to our current reality. Then in 2016, a Sexual Offences Bill that criminalises rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and online sexual offences was drafted into the Somali federal parliament but it was left collecting dust for two years. To this day, the bill is still being debated on and has not yet been approved. When you realise that the Somali parliament is dominated by men, it puts into perspective why women should not be sidelined from decision-making processes, especially when it’s regarding issues that affect them and young children.
Another problem lies with authorities not being adequately trained to handle these kinds of cases with sensitivity and provide support to victims and their families. Even the media can be ill-equipped to report cases on rape and other forms of sexual violence. Former BBC Journalist Yusuf Hassan has taken it upon himself to deliver training sessions on how to report these issues with sensitivity and without compromising the privacy of the victims and their families. This is definitely a step in the right direction. There’s also a huge lack of services all through Somalia that can deliver adequate health, social and psychological support to children and their families. Luckily, there are organisations like Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre that assist victims of sexual violence but the government should create access to more services.
The ideal scenario would be for the Somali Federal Government to implement a national law that applies to all jurisdictions that way children are legally protected from sexual violence. It’s the government’s responsibility to protect children from any form of harm, including sexual assault. Such cases should be dealt with in a serious manner as a crime against the state. No more blood compensation, victims deserve retributive justice. In the meantime, whilst children in Somalia fight for a better future, the Somali diaspora and citizens of the world can help by continuing to be more vocal about the pain and trauma inflicted upon those who are disproportionally most vulnerable to sexual violence. A nation that fails to protect its children is a nation with virtually no hope.