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This is particularly pertinent in Somalia. Everyone in Somalia has suffered from decades of often unrelenting conflict. But Somalia’s collapse has had a disproportionate impact on the lives of women and girls, with Somalia often referred to as one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman.
I am often told that Somalia has been carried on the backs of women for the past twenty years; they provide much of the labour required for the family’s survival, and are often the main breadwinners and entrepreneurs. Somalia’s women have also played a key role in promoting and securing greater stability, bringing different factions together in efforts to stop the fighting – as at the Arta conference in Djibouti in 2000.
However, after decades of violence, and despite the recent political progress and the security improvements, Somalia’s women are facing another, largely untold, crisis: the alarming increase in sexual violence against women and girls. This has to stop. Women’s security – and that of the households and communities they build, support and protect – has to be prioritised.
The recent Appeal Court verdict exonerating a woman convicted in February of insulting the Government, after she alleged she had been raped by Government security forces, was welcome; but there is still a long way to go.
The Government of Somalia is taking some initial – and positive – steps to tackle this issue, including the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a new human rights taskforce; and their plans to strengthen the police and justice system. Somali communities need stronger law enforcement and legal support; they also need stronger and more outspoken leadership from Somalia’s political, civic and religious leaders.
Preventing sexual violence, improving gender equality and strengthening the role of women in Somali society cannot be done overnight. It will take time, commitment and patience. Most importantly of all, perhaps, it will take leadership and courage, including from the international community.
The UK is committed to improving women’s rights in Somalia. As well as helping strengthen the police and judicial systems, we have also agreed with the Somali Government to develop pilot programmes under the Foreign Secretary’s Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative – an objective that will form a key part of the Somalia Conference in London on 7th May 2013.
Everything I have seen in Somalia has showed me that women must play a critical role in Somalia’s continued recovery. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, the UK is prepared to support Somalia’s women and children now and for the long-term, as we hope others will.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to sign off this blog with a short extract from a poem by Liban Obsiye: