Dr Halima Ismail Ibrahim, a former lecturer at Somalia National University, is currently co-coordinator at Galgudud Region programs for IIDA, a women's development organization.
She used to work in Seattle, Washington (US) as refugee advocate, but Dr Halima returned to Mogadishu to try to turn around one of the world’s most dangerous countries where women were considered second class.
Many years later, she has some positive achievements and in this interview she explains about a struggle to empower the Somali woman amid heavy fighting and displacement in the Horn of Africa country. Dr Halima will also highlight the difficulties faced by Somali women in this war-torn nation.
Muhyadin Ahmed Roble interviewed Dr. Halima in Nairobi, Kenya.
Q: What does IIDA do day to day?
A: IIDA has been working since 1991 in the country and we have offices in Somalia. The main office in Mogadishu but we have other offices in Merka, the capital of lower Shabelle region, Dhuso mareeb in Galgaguud region and other parts in country.
IIDA was founded by a group of Somali educated women to promote women’s political, economic and social rights. Also we are looking for better lives for women who have faced the difficult situations. Our main issue is empowering women. Empowering women, it may be has several faces but we are focusing on increasing their education or giving opportunity to start education.
We also work in health issues such as FGM with HIV/AIDS, helping displaced women and water and sanitation and have partnership and co-operation with other women organization that are based in the country.
Q: You are based in Mogadishu, how often are you there?
A: Yes. We are based in Mogadishu, where bloodshed is going on for almost 20 years. The senior officials and the staff are always there although the security concerns are high. In Mogadishu, the security is the first worry of the people. Every morning when you are coming out from your house, you don’t know if you will reach the office safely or not.
The population in Mogadishu's main districts have decreased. Many are moving outside of Mogadishu to Afgoye or KM5 areas. I would not say lucky but our office even before was based in KM5 and most of staff live around that area.
We have some other staff who live far away from the office in the conflict areas but they do manage coming to work. When the situation is very bad, they do not come to the office they work at their houses.
Q: As we understand most Mogadishu residents are living in Elasha now, where women ride in the back of the bus for the orders of Islamist insurgents, what do women do in that town?
A: Really, if you look at it is day by day life, and life is changing. As we know, women are the bread winners of the country. They are working and they were selling such food items such as, vegetables, milk, oil and even water. The mothers operate all sorts of retail trade in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. They also make a living from selling ‘Khat’ “Khat is a flowering plant native to tropical East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula which Somali men mainly use”.
Under the new rules coming from the Islamist Militia, life has become difficult for these women/mothers who are the income earners for their families. The men rarely do something that can earn a living for the family.
Q: May you describe the role of women activist in a town like Mogadishu?
A: To explain is very hard but women would not give up their activism role. They are working hard and continuing to create awareness. We decided to work until we are live and that is why some of us back from the abroad because our community needs us so we are ready to die in the course of helping them. We can also lobby and advocate political participation, peace campaigns through the workshop and radio debates.
Q: What do you feel when you are in Mogadishu?
A: Fear! Fear! Fear! We are scared and we fear! We don’t see hope but we are insisting to work inside and hope will come by the will of God.
Q: How many of women have you been giving professional training since your establishment?
A: I can surely say more than 30,000 of women from all parts of the country such as: Merka, Mogadishu, Janaale, Qoryooley, Dhusomareeb, Guriceel and others.
And also, we have centers; we have schools as we teach both regular education and informal education. We have elementary and intermediate schools for only girls. We have vocational training for the girls and boys who cannot go back to schools to start primary school because of their age.
In Dhuuso-mareeb, we are giving education more than 200 girls, in Guriceel another 280 girls, Merka more than that, also Mogadishu and others. We also undertake an illiteracy eradication program where we coach women on how to read and write.
Q: Do you hold workshops with men, young or old to advocate for women and children rights?
A: Yes, we do. We host common meetings and workshops to discuss and advocate women and children rights. Traditional elders, religious, youth, men and women are gathered that workshops and they talk about the rights.
We even train community mobilizers. We train community workers. We trained counselors who do the counseling for needed people.
Also in April last year, We also finished a big workshop about women’s rights, the health of women and how they can take part the activists going on in the country and more than 43 women had taken part that workshop in Guriceel, commercial leading town in central Somalia.
Q: What do you tell them?
A: We tell them all to educate their girls such that they can understand their rights. We also asked men to take their girls to school. We tell them the importance of empowering women and defending and also to tolerate and manage women their affairs independently and we give awareness about women’s issues.
Q: How can women and children advocate for their rights in today’s Mogadishu, where there is no law whatsoever?
A: having the will to do so. That is the best way to do this work and also psychological support, Media advocacy through the religious and traditional elders and legal advice.
Q: How do you advise women to defend their rights in a place like Mogadishu?
A: continuing the education first of all. Education is the power and it’s the weapon to look for their rights and we tell them to focus on education and looking for their rights. And then putting together all the efforts and to work together as women groups also increasing the level of awareness on the need to build peace among women groups and women rights.
Q: May you share with us the worst violence against women in your country?
A: I could say it is the early marriage. Very young ladies get married and then when they have one or two children are being divorced and that is the biggest challenge we have. Women are out there having nothing with the babies and it their rights has been violated. In other case the men marry another young lady so they don’t treaty this young girls like human beings. That is a big violence in the country.
The FGM is also another big issue and it is a big violation that we know. Other thing is not giving the equal opportunity to both the girl and boys. Mainly parent send their sons to school and they don’t take girls to school.
The ongoing fighting is a big violence against women because most of those dying are women and children. There are a few cases of raped women but it is not high as a compared to other countries.
But the women who have raped mostly don’t report and they hide because they will not have a good face within the community so they prefer hiding. Victims fear that the community may not accept them as rape victims so they don’t disclose what they underwent.
And although we don’t have statistics because of insecurity but we are still keeping and recording the crimes against women. But we have adequate evidence that tell us what happened. However, there is not a court to look at this evidence or even try those who have committed these crimes.
Q: Who carry crimes against women?
A: We know and we got it but I cannot tell you at this moment because of our security. When we get a legal prosecution we will announce God wishes.
Q: In Somalia, there are women on streets; what about their life and what are they facing?
A: they don’t have security and they are in poverty, some times, they die in the streets. But we are caring for them, we give them food and we hospitalize them when they fall ill. Some of them, we give education. Others we help them to start small business. We lend them money to start business. We advise them on how they can help each other. We have encouraged the merry go round culture.
Q: What about women who have mental health problems?
A: They are facing hard life and there are not enough doctors those specialized mental health problems in country. Also they don’t have enough drugs or treatments but we refer them to hospitals and there others those live with their families and we give some food, water and others.
Mostly they die in the streets because of clashes and fighting in the country. The insurgents and government forces with others shot them mistakenly; since they don’t run they are shot as those fighting think that they are enemies.
Q: What about FGM in the country?
A: Female Genital Mutilation is one of the worst violations against women in the country and it is based as traditional practice. The FGM has devastated the future of Somalis women in common and mostly young girls and old women both are suffering same. Sometimes lead to the death of mother and child in birth time.
Many women and girls suffer permanent damage to their health and well-being and inflict serious physical, psychological and sexual complications on women and girls.
Young girls also don’t finish their school because of FGM. In Somalia, the FGM still is strong; only 5% live in the main towns has saved the FGM, but in rural areas is 100%.
We are fighting against FGM through to the awareness, talking to mothers and we also teach in the schools lesson about the problems of FGM.
We help women who practice FGM for a living to take up other means of earning a living. We train to become midwives or start small business to stop this painful professional but the main challenges are that the new FGM makers come.
Q: What about divorce in your country?
A: I could not say exact number but a lot of young women are divorced. A big number of young ladies with their children are on streets, markets and begging others to give food and money. Men marry young girls and divorce; they again marry other one and divorce again.
The divorced women are filling our centres and we help as others girls. When the young girls aged, she must marry because she doesn’t have education or job so the only option is to marry. While the men are playing the marriage, he is marrying this, then divorce and get another one. Men always have four wives.
And most of divorced women don’t get other marriage because men always want a young girl.
Q: Did you record any HIV/AIDS cases in country?
A: Yes, there are (HIV)/AIDS cases but the only time that we can know is when pregnant women come in the hospitals and make test. The test can also be done when a seriously ill patient is admitted to hospital. In Somalia people rarely take voluntary HIV testing.
Some medical experts say the HIV/AIDS is 5% while others say it is 1% in the country but we don’t have an exact number. We also treat HIV positive patients with a lot of care. We help them financially.
Despite the war in Somali our people are really good and they show love and affection for HIV positive patients in Somalia.
Q: What are you doing in the education sector?
A: UNICEF helps us in building classes in public schools and we give students books and we give teachers allowance because the students do not pay money. They are mostly displaced people and many have lost livestock because of drought in the country. We also build schools in Mogadishu and other parts of the country. We also give women technical educations such as cooking food; sew clothes, sewing machine and others to work in the towns.
We also have education for food program which begun in 1994 and each shift 800 people participated that program in Merka and Mogadishu. But it has stalled due to the effects of a ban on international aid agencies in southern Somalia, but we still have those women in our centres. Islamist bans to aid agencies affected our work because we always depend on the funds from the international aid agencies.
Q: How do the men help your work?
A: More of our staff are men and they help us as much as we need but there are other men those say women are overthrowing us. While educated men are encouraging us because, they like what we are doing in the country.
Q: How has the years of conflict affected the relations between men and women?
A: The rule has changed and women are head of family because head of the family is the one who pays the fee. The men are sitting at the tea shops and under trees and arguing useless issues.
Most of the men also chewing Khat while the women are running for cover families’ needs. The men chewing Khat pay much money to get Khat (described above)as their children eat nothing so the life is changed.
Also men take their time in tea shops and don’t give time their wives with children. While the women wake up early in the morning to sell khat for feeding her children.
Q: In Somalia, how do Men treat their wives and children?
A: Men are not aware of children at this moment; the clans say “men have already died in civil war so we must get a lot of children (men)”, so they marry four women and you see 30 years old man who has more than 40 children and even they don’t know their names, where they live and how they are doing. We could say men are cheating their wives and their children.
Q: What about in terms of marriage – do women have power to choose their partners, to leave or to demand support from them?
A: They can’t demand to leave their husbands but sometimes in towns they choose and marry their partners although force marriage is strong in rural areas.
Another main challenge is aging men, who marry young girls for example, the town in central Somalia a man who old 112 years has married a 17 years old girl and her father sold her and gave this old man in 2009. At that time I was in that town, she didn’t choose but her father said and that is it because she can’t reject. The only way to change this is to educate women because if she learns; she will have her own decision.
Q: Talk about Somali women’s role in government and peacemaking?
A: Women are putting all their efforts restoring peace and law in Somalia. In 1998, we started disarming youth and achieved to disarm 150 armed men.
Those laid down their arms got professional and technical trains such as fishing, farming, mechanic, electrical and other professionals and they are still working in their professionals.
But unfortunately Somali warlords forced to stop this program in 2003 because some of their fighters disarmed and also they lost new recruits. Now, we are planning to restart this program.