Sometimes it helps to talk

A series of centres across Somalia offer a new model of justice that can help reduce violence against women

Violence against women is a problem everywhere. Around the world, the UN estimates that 1 in 3 women have experienced rape or other violent abuse. Figures are harder to come by in Somalia but there is no reason to think the problem does not exist here — and plenty of anecdotal data and proxy indicators suggest it might be worse than the average.

The most commonly reported crimes in many police stations involve violence against women, but women make up less than 10 percent of the police force and there is only one female judge for the entire country. This limits the ability of the justice system to prosecute crimes against women or provide support to victims.

Schoolgirls learn about FGM and other violence against women at an event supported by UNDP and the EU. But knowledge is not enough without a system of justice to protect their rights.

At the same time, some cultural norms drive violence against women and girls. The most commonly cited figure for female genital mutilation is that it affects 98% of Somali women and girls. The Somali parliament recently proposed a law that would legalise child marriage, which currently affects 45% of all girls. This was met with outrage, but the fact that it got past the drafting stage is indicative of widely held attitudes to women’s rights.

The question is not so much whether there is a problem, but what to do about it. Rebuilding the police service and the courts after 30 years of civil war will take decades — enough time for a whole generation to grow up and suffer abuse. So UNDP has been working with ministries of justice in all Federal Member States to find a solution that can ensure protection for women now.

The Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre in Baidoa handles up to 25 cases month.

With funding from the EU, the Netherlands and Sweden, we have set up 10 Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) centres across all five Federal Member States. These are compounds where panels of elders registered with the Ministry of Justice adjudicate disputes with an emphasis on bringing people together to find common ground and solutions to which both sides can agree.

Individuals can approach the centres in person, but sometimes elders bring cases in from the countryside or they are referred from the courts. No matter who arrives with an issue, however, both sides in any dispute have to agree for the case to be heard at a centre before it can go ahead.

Records kept by the Baidoa ADR suggest that physical assault and failure to contribute to household expenses are common problems.

The panels deciding the cases always include at least one woman elder. Sometimes an elder is also selected for knowledge of a specific issue, such as land rights, and there is usually an elder from each clan of the people involved.

Most cases take about a week to adjudicate and decisions are largely based on Sharia law — but with an emphasis on dialogue and keeping the peace rather than following strict rules. There are no enforcement mechanisms, but people usually abide by the decisions of the elders due to unwritten cultural rules. If one party doesn’t agree, they are still free to approach the courts for a formal resolution.

The centres sit somewhere in the middle of the available justice options — between customary decisions handed out by elders in local villages on one hand and the judgements of the formal court system on the other. The aim is to offer fairer judgements than the former (which have seen, for example, rape victims married off to their abusers) while avoiding the costs and corruption of the latter.

Qowla manages the Baidoa ADR centre, which deals with cases of domestic abuse, rape and other crimes against women.

In Baidoa, the ADR centre has been running since May 2018. It is open every day except Fridays from 8am to 2pm and sees up to 25 cases a month.

Panel members are chosen from among 33 male elders (one nominated by each of the local clans) and 30 female elders (nominated by each sub village). As part of the support, they are trained by UNDP on non-violent communication and issues like forced marriage.

The training doesn’t just cover human rights from a legal standpoint; it encourages people to think about how community responses will affect the people involved, emotionally as well as materially. It has also been instrumental in securing a formal place for women on the decision-making panels whenever disputes involve women — for example in cases of land rights — which increases the chance of fairer decisions. (In the past, women were merely consulted informally.)

Non-violent communication training enables staff and elders to work with people to find out the underlying reasons for any dispute. In a lot of domestic cases, for example, people find it hard to talk openly about their problems. If a husband is refusing to give money to his wife for household needs is it because he doesn’t trust her or because he needs the money for drugs or is it something else?

Many of the cases are from nearby IDP camps, which host 50,000 people, mostly displaced by conflict and disasters.

“We make sure that we have as many rooms available for consultations as possible,” says Mohammed, Director General of the South West Ministry of Justice. “Sometimes people come in with disputes and then they just talk for a while and when they come out they say they’ve reconciled!”

In more difficult cases, paralegal staff can be brought in to help from another UNDP project that offers free legal support to vulnerable people.

UNDP rents the buildings that house the ADR Centre and pays for costs like power and security. We also have plans to expand the use of these centres to provide a safe meeting space for women and offer courses for women on leadership, counselling and how to be a paralegal.

In Baidoa, the ADR centre is also setting up a hotline manned by an operator trained in listening and mediation techniques. (A similar service in Hirshabelle gets almost 200 calls a month.)

To further encourage peaceful dispute resolution throughout the community, there are also periodic awareness campaigns on local radio that promote communication techniques to help resolve situations that are frequent causes of domestic violence.

“People come to us and say they have used these techniques to solve problems with their neighbours or their husbands,” says Baidoa’s ADR coordinator, Qowla Mohammed. “Sometimes they don’t come with cases but just to tell us how they have already solved their disputes.”

Baidoa ADR has 30 women elders and at least one of the sits on every decision-making panel.

Some stories from the Baido ADR: what kind of cases get solved?

Elder Fadumo’s story

Elder Habibo’s story

Elder Fatuma’s story

UNDP’s work on alternative dispute resolution in Baidoa and other cities across Somalia is funded by the European Union, the Netherlands and Sweden.

For more on UNDP’s work to protect women from domestic violence and other crimes, see these videos on our support to women police, free legal aid services and the training of new women lawyers.

For more in UNDP’s work on rule of law in general: