‘I am a Somali woman’. The poem by Sahro Kooshin set the stage for discussion on Somali women’s civic engagement held at the Rift Valley Institute office in Nairobi on 6th February 2015. The conference, organized by the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), and Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), with support from the Research Council of Norway and Somalia Stability Fund, aimed to bring together women and men interested in learning about and learning from Somali women’s civic and political engagement. This is part of the ‘Gender in Politics in Somalia: Access and influence in a post-conflict state’ (GENSOM) project.
The conference, attended by Somali activists for women’s rights, and representatives of policymaking organisations, discussed the findings of recent research. Exploring how Somali women have understood, accessed, and exerted power and influence, it became evident from the research that women have been involved in women’s welfare organizations, politics, and the Somali women’s movement in wide variety of ways.
However, the researchers also found a perception amongst interviewees that only one side of a story is being told. History often focuses on a minimized view of a Somali woman’s role and downplays her contribution to society. ‘Our history is male focused with stories of successful males.’ However, the representation of women is not uniform in these stories, as different identities of women emerge – depending on clan, region and other factors. The research was performed to provide a focal point for the expression of women’s issues and to highlight how
‘The position of Somali women has changed over the years, influenced by religion, culture & identity’.
Discussions on women’s roles elicited feedback from the participants such as Mariam Qasim, the former Somalia Minister for Women’s Development and Family Affairs, and Fawzia Yusuf Haji, the former Somalia Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, who spoke about the different roles they played in Somalia.
Maimuna Mohamud, the lead researcher, observed that the majority of women interviewed shared the view that most women’s involvement in society reflects their sense of responsibility, which often changes during her lifetime. Through documenting the stories of Somali women, one can see the variety in perceptions of a Somali woman’s role. The discussion was enriched by new ideas and unique perspectives, with it being noted that,
‘Somali women’s experiences are not collective and each individual’s experience is unique within a particular historical and social context’.
The Stability Fund continues to support the strengthening of women’s leadership and participation in decision making processes in Somalia through strengthening the role of women’s organizations, supporting women in the private sector, and a job placement scheme for female graduates across Somalia.