Somalia has spent much of the past two decades mired in a civil conflict that accelerated with the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime. Several years of violence led to the collapse, and it has been followed by two decades of virtual lawlessness. While it has largely been men actively fighting, women have suffered famine, family disintegration, degenerating quality of life, and sexual violence in the ensuing conflict. Over the coming months this blog will detail some of the tragedies and challenges, as well as the triumphs of women in Somalia.

A coastal country in the eastern Horn of Africa, Somalia’s population is almost entirely Muslim, but is made up of several competing clans. It gained independence in 1960, maintaining a kind of democracy for nine years before Mohamed Siad Barre seized power during a bloodless coup in 1969. Barre had a vision for the country that was what some have called “social Islam.” He ostensibly tried to rid Somalia of its clan divisions and establish widespread accessible education, in part by creating an alphabet and a written Somali language.

Barre’s downfall came, in part, because of a conflict he initiated with Ethiopia – home to a number of ethnic Somalis. There are also allegations that despite his rhetoric against clans he was giving those from his own Darod clan more power within government. In 1991 he was ousted from power by a number of militias, and the country spiraled into a lawless, leaderless state that proved dangerous for everyone – especially women. Since then, the country has seen a significant turn towards a more conservative, traditional form of Islam. No single figure or group was able to step into the leadership role after Barre’s departure, but many religious leaders filled the vacuum left by the former government. This power vacuum helped facilitate the rise of al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group that was added to the U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2008.

While Somalia has historically been a Muslim country, the family and cultural dynamic naturally shifted with the rise of Islamic conservatism. One of the more obvious changes began with women’s dress. Traditionally Somali women have not worn a veil. In the case of nomads, which once comprised a large part of the population, light outfits were commonly worn to permit easy movement and not impede their physically demanding lifestyle. The rise of conservative Islam, however, has led many women (by choice or coercion) to begin wearing the veil as it is seen as part of the natural order of women’s life.

Islamic conservatism has also had an increasing impact on schooling for girls and young women. Despite the push for education under Barre, the Somali school system has crumbled without a regime in power – because there is no central government, many of the schools that are operating are madrassas, Kuranic schools funded by oil-rich Middle Eastern states that have traditionally followed a more conservative line of Islam and influence Somalia through financial aid. Just as religious leaders filled positions left by the departure of the Barre government, Islamic charity organizations are now also taking over the administration of public services (like education) that have been neglected. Although not all Islamic charities promote a more conservative lifestyle than previously existed in Somalia, their influence, particularly through education, can pose significant challenges to girls’ education.

For many Somali children, most notably in rural areas, Kuranic schools are all that are available. For girls especially, who are given more domestic duties, Kuranic schools can be more flexible than formal education, and provide their only opportunity for any sort of schooling. That said, madrassas are generally run by one teacher, who rarely has any sort of secular training and who is there mainly to impart a religious education. This perpetuates an increasingly conservative culture, one aspect of which is the belief in the importance of separating the sexes, which ultimately creates greater difficulty for girls in attaining education.

Even though Somalia never attained a universal education system under Barre (particularly in rural areas), the number of children able to attend school was increasing steadily. Girls especially were benefitting, albeit slowly – from 1974 to 1984, high school enrollment for girls rose from 17 to 34 per cent. Now, shockingly few Somali children have access to even the most basic primary education. According to one study in the International Journal of Educational Research, 48 per cent of girls say they have never been to school compared to 32 per cent of boys.[1] The conservative culture creates an environment where parents are already reluctant to send their daughters to co-ed schools, but there is also a significant possibility that a male instructor will supervise them.

A related issue, especially in rural areas, is the danger of getting to school. According to the CIA, 63 per cent of Somalis lived in rural areas in 2010, so attending school generally means travelling a significant distance. This leaves girls susceptible to violent, often sexually motivated attacks. Even after arriving at school, the majority of staff and faculty are men. In 2001, men led 97 per cent of schools and held 86 per cent of the teaching positions. More recent statistics from the Somaliland and Puntland regions, where 84 and 82 per cent of teachers are male, illustrate that there has been little change over the last decade. In a culture where value is placed on a female’s virginity, fear of violence both in and outside of the school system has contributed further to a culture already averse to sending girls to school. Instead many families choose to keep their daughters close at home.

The possibility of sexual violence carries with it physical, emotional, cultural and material consequences for the young girls and their families. In Somalia a woman’s virginity is not merely a personal trait or quality. Many families rely on income from marrying off their daughters, and girls who have had sex, regardless of whether they were forced into it, bring a lower price, if anything at all. In a warzone, sexual attacks are more prevalent, which has led many families to marry their daughters at younger ages in an attempt to preempt attacks. Once married, schooling is not a priority as women are expected to fulfill the role of mother and homemaker.

If not already married, young girls are often stuck at home helping their mother run the household. The fighting in the country has, naturally, led many families into a deeper poverty than existed in the past. With limited resources, education is either not possible for any children in a family, or prioritized for sons. Girls are expected to stay home and help their mother. In some cases, if husbands and sons are off fighting or killed, the mother becomes the breadwinner of the family and they may rely on daughters to take over running the house entirely. This happens commonly in refugee camps – women become vendors in an effort to feed their families, while men see themselves as ‘above’ selling at these venues because it is inherently a “woman’s space.”

The problem of education in Somalia has been compounded by the increase in poverty due to ongoing civil conflict. Without a central government funding schools, many institutions are scraping by with a lack of infrastructure and resources, creating unique problems for girls. For instance, girls find it more difficult than boys to attend schools where there are no washrooms with running water, for obvious sanitation reasons.

Another major hurdle to improving schooling opportunities is the number of refugees fleeing Somalia. It is nearly impossible to receive suitable education while on the run. While some refugees flee to countries with strong education systems, like Canada, many end up in refugee camps living in squalid conditions with limited food let alone educational resources. By 1993, 300,000 refugees had fled to neighbouring Kenya, many landing at Dadaab Refugee camp – often described as the world’s largest. Of those, 80 per cent were women and children.

The conflict in Somalia has made life more difficult for almost everyone living there, but women and girls are in a unique position. They rarely participate directly in the fighting but are victims of the conflict in both direct and indirect ways. The death of male family members in the fighting can cause anguish, but also has a domino effect in terms of family dynamics. It has led more women to take over as breadwinners, which in turn forces families to increasingly rely on their daughters to run the household. In other cases, girls can be forced into early marriages with their own household to run as a preemptive measure against sexual violence. These daily features of Somali life have been compounded by existing barriers imposed by the decaying state of the Somali education system and the rise of fundamentalist teachings, which seek to redefine women’s roles in the public and private sphere. Societal norms have shifted as an increasingly conservative form of Islam filled the vacuum of power left by Barre’s downfall. The consequence of all these factors is that girls are being denied the opportunity for a basic education, and with it, the ability to determine their own future in a country that sorely needs them to move forward towards peace.

[1] Peter Moyi, “Girls’ schooling in war-torn Somalia,” International Journal of Educational Research 53 (2012): 201.