As recently as 2012, Puntland had no women lawyers working in any of its courts. So 60-year-old Safiya Jama Gayre from Puntland’s major city of Garowe decided to do something about it.
“When I found out that there were no women lawyers in the courts, I decided to fill that gap,” Safiya explains. “In our society, we still settle domestic violence issues with customary laws and traditions that don’t treat men and women equally. Since women aren’t decision makers… violence against girls and women is not prosecuted.”
This situation wasn’t good enough for Safiya. She already had a Bachelor’s Degree in business administration and she was confident she could take up a totally new subject, even at the age when most people are thinking of retiring.
“Age for me was just a number,” she says.
But she did have one problem: how to pay for the course. Luckily, UNDP had set up a 4-year law degree at Puntland State University (PSU) that offered scholarships to the best students who couldn’t afford the fees. Safiya applied and was accepted.
After graduating, Safiya found a job with Puntland’s Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, where she heads the vulnerable people help desk. This mostly deals with issues related to violence, including rape, physical assault and forced marriage, as well as domestic cases including when husbands refuse to grant a divorce or provide child support.
The UNDP-funded program aims to create a pool of competent and well-trained legal professionals who can help professionalize the justice sector, which has too few lawyers, judges or prosecutors of any gender.
More than 50 percent of graduates go on to find employment in the legal, political or justice systems. They can hit the ground running because the programme also offers internships in Puntland’s legal institutions for students to gain practical working experience to complement their theoretical skills.
Since the programme started, 176 students have graduated from the course, including 52 women. Over the same period, Puntland has been able to move from having one female lawyer to 46 female legal professionals. Seven women have also been appointed as female regional prosecutors.
Safiya herself has represented more than 50 cases since she became a lawyer — mostly related to domestic violence and people with disabilities.
One that sticks in her mind was a rape case involving a girl from a district nearly 400km away. The girl and her family had fled to Garowe because this was their best chance of getting a fair trial.
“I kept on every day and fought in the courts for the victim until justice was served,” Safiya explains. “Ending impunity for violence against women and girls rests entirely with us women. If we don’t act, no one will stand up for us.”
The UN Joint Justice Programme supports the Government of Somalia to increase access to justice, strengthen the of Law and build peace and stability across Somalia. The Puntland State University scholarship programme is funded by the European Union and the governments of the Netherlands and Sweden.