How I work to end violence against women in Somalia

A mom and her children in Somalia. ©UNHCR

Victoria Nwogu, from Nigeria, is the Head of the Cross-cutting Unit of our UNDP office in Somalia. She is committed to ending violence against women through addressing gender inequality in Somalia.

Victoria outside the United Nations building. ©Victoria Nwogu

How does your work help women and girls?

My work for women and girls is focused on the justice system.

I work to give women the education and knowledge they need to become paralegals, prosecutors, police officers and other roles where they can challenge gender inequalities.

I help strengthen the judicial and security sectors to prevent sexual violence, expand social services for survivors and better equip police, judges and prosecutors to help women and girls and ensure they get legal redress.

Graduation day at the police academy in Somalia. ©UN Photo
Aswan Jibril, Somalia’s first female prosecutor who graduated with support from UNDP, pictured in 2011 at work. ©UNDP

I also support the development of gender-responsive laws, so that women can claim their rights or seek justice if they suffer violations such as gender violence or female genital mutilation*.

According to UNICEF, 98% of women aged 15 to 49 in Somalia have undergone female genital mutilation. Nearly half (45%) of Somali women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 18.

footnote: *Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated. More on FGM from World Health Organization

Your three messages for life for young women currently entering the workforce or school.

Basketball and other sports used to be forbidden for girls in Somalia but are becoming popular. ©UN Photo
  1. Learn as much as you can.
  2. Ask as many questions as you can.
  3. Pursue your dreams, whatever they may be.

Can you give us one short and concrete example of how UNDP helped a survivor? Where is she now? What is she doing? Is she okay?

“N” (her identity has been kept anonymous) is a 15 year-old girl who resides in a city in Somalia.

One evening N. went outside to run an errand. Eight men abducted her to the outskirts of town and gang raped her. During the attack, the men stabbed her repeatedly, knocked out three of her front teeth and videotaped the incident. N. was screaming for help the entire time, but residents nearby were reluctant to intervene for fear of their own safety. Finally, one resident alerted soldiers nearby, who came to her rescue.

They arrested five of the perpetrators and referred them to the District Police station. After further investigation, two of the escapees were also apprehended at their homes. The last perpetrator disappeared. N. was unconscious for days. Due to the severity of her injuries, she couldn’t be treated at the local hospital.

Eventually, the Attorney General sent an ambulance to take her to the main hospital in Mogadishu. She had to share this ride with seven of her perpetrators. The Somali Women Development Concern (SWDC), a UNDP partner, arranged for N.’s transfer to the hospital while the accused were held at the Central prison. After treatment, the NGO coordinated with Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC) which provided a safe house to N. to ensure her safety while lawyers were pursuing the case at the regional Court.

Of the seven men accused, one man was released for lack of evidence and the remaining six were found guilty. They each received 20-year jail terms, twenty million Somali shilling fine and had to give $5000 to N.’s family for her dowry and 15 heads of camels for the broken teeth. They didn’t appeal and the sentence was fully implemented. N. is now staying with relatives in Mogadishu while she continues to undergo medical treatment and counseling from The Somali Women Development Concern. She cannot attend school as a result of the pain and psychological trauma.

How is UNDP working to end female genital mutilation and other forms of violence against women?

UNDP Community Dialogue in action. ©UNDP

One of our approaches is through Community Dialogue, which is based on the philosophy that communities have an inherent capacity to develop sustainable solutions to the challenges they face because they have an in-depth understanding of their own social, political and cultural dynamics. This helps communities to examine, challenge and address values and beliefs underpinning harmful practices such as FGM and sexual violence. So far, we’ve reached 15,202 people to change perceptions of gender violence and female genital mutilation.

Who are the hardest groups to convince when it comes to ending FGM, domestic violence and those who commit rape?

Internally displaced Somalis at a camp in Somalia. ©UNDP

The hardest groups to convince when it comes to ending FGM are religious and traditional leaders. Their societies look up to them for spiritual and cultural guidance; and religious tenets often influence other aspects of everyday life. Given their position in society, it becomes extremely difficult for them to acknowledge that they may have gotten it wrong for a very long time and seek a different path. These groups of people are the hardest to negotiate with but when they come around, they are also able to influence change significantly and sustainably.

Female cutters are another hard group to convince. They earn an income from Female Genital Mutilation. With them, dialogue is not enough. We must convince them to adopt alternative ways of supporting themselves.

What role do moms and matrons play in ending Female Genital Mutilation and other violence against women and girls?

UNDP Community Dialogue in action. ©UNDP

The common narrative is that FGM is imposed on girls by their parents or those in authority over them. But I have come across several instances in Somalia where parents gave their daughters the option to not undergo Female Genital Mutilation but they went ahead anyway due to peer pressure.

Moms and matrons can protect their daughters from this by discussing the issue and its consequences with them in very candid and open manner. They could also reach out to other moms and matrons, discuss the issue within their wider communities and reach a consensus on abandoning the practice.

What roles do fathers, brothers, and men have in ending FGM?

A dad and his daughter taking a weekend stroll on Lido Beach in Mogadishu, Somalia. ©UN Photo

Fathers and brothers can show support and encouragement to mothers, daughters, wives and sisters who do not wish to undergo FGM and make their position known in the community. In decision-making forums where women are excluded, men can be advocates for women in the community and push to abandon this practice. Young men and women seeking to enter into marriage can decide that they will not require FGM for themselves and their daughters.

Compassion. Conviction. What role do these play in the work you do, especially on Female Genital Mutilation and other gender violence issues?

Madina Hospital in Mogadishu ©UN Photo

In our interactions with partners, we are presented with stories of pain, trauma, sadness and sometimes survival, overcoming the circumstances and becoming an advocate for others. One cannot help but to share in these emotions. These stories give life to the work that we do and convinces me that our work is important but also urgent because gender inequalities can perpetuate themselves if left unchallenged. We have to fight with this generation to secure a better future for the next.

As a child, what did you want to be when you “grew up”?

Victoria at work. ©Victoria Nwogu

As a child, I watched a TV programme called Case File and decided I wanted to be a judge. I wanted to be able to bang a gavel on the bench and tell everyone what to do. I eventually studied law because I realized that through it, I could better understand some of the injustices I perceived happening around me and find a way to address them. I haven’t ended up in a court of law but I’ve had the opportunity to contribute in so many ways.

What is your first-ever job?

Victoria pictured in the yellow dress with colleagues from UNSOM, UNWomen and Somali women activists. ©Victoria Nwogu

My first ever job was with a human rights organization where I combined research and advocacy with legal practice. In my first case, I defended a widow whose in-laws were about to seize the house she had shared with her late husband. I secured an injunction that prevented them from evicting her from her home until the case we had filed on her behalf was heard. Her in-laws did not wait around for the end of the matter. They left her alone after the injunction.

What gives you energy to keep fighting the good fight for women’s and girls’ rights?

Victoria prepares to visit a project site in Somalia. ©Victoria

My role in UNDP places me in a position to amplify the voices and efforts of women demanding a positive change to the status quo. It starts with one voice demanding change and ripples through whole communities and the wider society.

I come from a culture that practices primogeniture. This means that as a woman, I do not have an inheritance in my father’s house. Access and control of land and other economic resources is important for women because it reinforces identity, it gives us the ability to secure other rights and express our agency (our capacity to act and make choices).

I want to see this culture change for women in my lifetime.

It’s impossible for me to stay detached as a woman in the face of challenges faced by other women. I had my share of similar challenges so it helps me to empathize. I therefore consider myself blessed to be in a position that enables me to take positive action.

Who are the women you’ve met who inspired you?

I have a passion for women’s rights and gender equality because I have come to realise that in spite of our differences, women in many parts of the world continue to have their lives shaped by the weight of Patriarchy. Of all the women I have met, the ones that inspire me the most are women who know exactly what they stand for, and are not afraid to say it. In Somalia, women who stand out for me are:

© Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation

Somali human rights activist Dr. Hawa Abdi, the country’s first female gynecologist who began her activism when she opened a clinic on her family’s land to provide free healthcare to Somalis.

© TedTalk/ Youtube

In 1991, when the Somali civil war started, her family land became Hawa Abdi village, a safe haven for over 90,000 internally displaced civilians fleeing war, many of whom were women and children.

© UN Photo

Dr. Edna Aden, the former Foreign Minister of Somaliland and the President of the Organization for Victims of Torture. When the Somali Civil War began, she was forced to leave. For a decade, she worked for the World Health Organization. Upon her return to Somaliland, she built The Edna Adan Maternity and Teaching Hospital from scratch.

© Half the Sky/ Youtube

Trained nursing professionals had either fled Somalia or had been killed during the war so Dr. Edna recruited and trained Somalia’s next generation of female healthcare professionals. The hospital continues to train healthcare workers to meet demands in Somaliland, which has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world.

Mama Hawa speaks to a group of internally displaced women at the Halabokhad settlement in Galkayo, Somalia. She believes that “illiteracy in women is the reason why they can’t demand their rights.” © UNHCR

Mama Hawa Aden Mohamed, a Somali activist who returned to Somalia after the civil war to offer education and trainings for women and girls who had been displaced by the war. She’s a vocal advocate against Female Genital Mutilation.

All three of these women chose to stay during raging war or chose to return to Somalia in spite of the continued fighting and dangers to rebuild their homes and help other members of the community, even as they continue to confront gender inequalities.

What can people do daily to end violence against women and girls?

A student drawing during break. ©UNDP

Violence against women is a symptom of underlying gender inequality.

Examine your perceptions about the role of men and women in society. Be mindful of the way we speak to one another and how we react to stories or incidents of inequality and violence against men and women. In a world that is increasingly going digital with a significant role of social media in shaping that world, we can use such informal platforms to show empathy and help others shape a positive attitude to gender equality.

What are 3 daily good habits you do every day?

I pray every morning for spiritual and mental balance to carry me through the day, I exercise to maintain physical equilibrium and when I journal the day’s events, I try to see humor in the most challenging moments.

Finish these sentences:

  1. The book that inspires me is… ‘Sounds of Laughter: An Anthology of Poems from the Soul’ by Sahro Ahmed Koshin.

2. The song that energizes me is…“It’s my life” by Dr. Alban.

3. By 2030, I want to live in a world that…places men and women on an equal footing in all endeavours of life.

4. The world needs more…men speaking up about the equality of women and men and living the example in their actions.

5. Today I will aspire to…finish up some writing that’s been nagging on my mind.

6. The person who inspires me to keep working for women’s and girls’ rights is…my mother. I want to finish what she started by defying the odds and sacrificing so much to give me an education.

Interview by: Lei Phyu/ UNDP

UN Development Programme

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