How to improve justice for women in Somalia

A safer Somalia means more women on the force, in the judiciary and even in the dock

As a woman victim of crime in Somalia, you face an uphill battle to get justice. First you have to get someone to listen to you. Then you have to get a fair decision. Neither is easy.

For women in rural areas — the majority of the population — this battle usually takes place before a council of clan or religious elders, where decisions are based on customary law (xeer) or Islamic law (sharia).[1] In these forums, women are spoken for by a male relative[2] and have no say in decision making, which often relies on fines or negotiations to settle disputes. If a woman has been killed, for example, her family might seek compensation in the form of 100 camels (half the price asked for a male victim). If she has been raped, she might be forced to marry the perpetrator.[3] But whatever the crime, her opinion on what would be a just outcome is unlikely to be taken into consideration and offenders usually walk free if they pay the whatever compensation is asked for.

In the cities, a woman can try the formal courts, but these present their own formidable obstacles to justice. Most people a woman meets in the courts, legal offices and police stations will still be male, including 92% of the police force and all but two of the country’s judges. A woman plaintiff may face corruption[4] and even if she gets a decision in her favour there is no guarantee it will be enforced, particularly where land, inheritance or influential clans and individuals are involved. Sometimes, this leads to a demand for arbitration via Al Shabaab Courts,[5] which may enforce decisions with greater speed and efficiency.

All these obstacles are compounded when the crime involves sexual violence. Stigma discourages women from reporting such cases and officials from registering them. There are very few qualified investigators in the CID or staff who can gather evidence, provide counselling or support women through the traumatic process of a prosecution.

There are also very few police and very few women in the judiciary or practicing law. A 2017 study by UNWOMEN noted that women make up only 8% of the police. The same study also found that many people still believe women shouldn’t join the police because of the physically demanding environment or because it’s “un-Islamic or culturally inappropriate” or because women officers would neglect “their” work in the house or because women “aren’t sufficiently educated”.[6] Sometimes family members prevent women from signing up because they disapprove or are afraid of what might happen on the job.

Women themselves also have good reasons not to apply for legal and policing jobs. When they do, they can be relegated to low-level tasks or placed in nominal positions of authority where their decisions are ignored. More alarmingly, harassment and even sexual exploitation by male colleagues and superiors is rife throughout the legal system.

With so many problems, there will have to be a broad range of solutions. First, there’s a clear need for more women to enter the Somali police force, legal professions and social work roles. This will require time-bound targets for enrolment numbers, recruitment drives at universities and media campaigns that encourage women to apply and showcase existing role models. There should also be literacy and other training for women who might be thinking of applying and support for new recruits to help them settle in and advance toward promotion.

Second, women must be safe and respected on the job. Training and admitting women at the lower ranks or entry-level jobs without addressing the attitudes and behaviour of male superiors risks exposing them to abuse, so there needs to be an effective system of oversight that has real teeth, a safe way to report abuses, campaigns to change the working culture with both male and female champions for change and training for all staff on gender equality and human rights.

Third, there is a need to expand the reach of the formal justice system while keeping down the costs, not just of lawyers but also of transport to courts, which can be very far from a woman’s home. Efforts should include expanding the mobile court system that brings visiting judges to rural villages, working with community leaders to change attitudes and make it easier for women to leave home and prosecute cases and outreach to encourage women to report crimes and help them navigate the courts.

These efforts must be augmented by the provision of alternatives to the current formal and informal justice options, including dispute resolution centres where conflicts can be resolved through mediation and forums for communities to come together and discuss solutions that work in the local context.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a range of projects to help achieve of these goals. Together they have provided access to justice for more than 30,000 women since 2019.

UNDP-supported Alternative Dispute Resolution centres in several cities provide advice to women and a space where disputes can be resolved through mediation sessions where women’s voices are heard and women elders are on the decision-making panels.

In Banadir, UNDP has established help desks to guide women through the court system, from registering a case all the way to appealing a decision, and we have digitised the case management system to make it more efficient and transparent.

In Puntland, we have run “Community Conversations” that bring together local communities to find solutions to problems like domestic violence and land disputes. We are also supporting institutions and grassroots organisations countrywide to uphold women’s rights and ensure women take on key leadership roles.

At the same time, UNDP continues to facilitate discussion on the sexual offences bill and other key legislation that will make the justice system fairer and more accessible for women. This includes public advocacy campaigns, because ultimately it doesn’t matter what laws or systems are in place if the people implementing them continue to treat women as second-class citizens.

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UNDP Somalia

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) works to achieve the eradication of poverty and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion.