February 13, 2014

 Samer Muscati, who researches the plight of women in conflict and emergency situations, recently spent time in one of the world’s most dangerous cities: Mogadishu, Somalia. There, he was part of a team that interviewed more than two dozen rape victims for a report, “Here, Rape is Normal”. Muscati talks to us about women in Somalia, how rape is a horrible symptom of a greater problem, and ways to advocate with a government in a war-torn country that can barely exercise control over its capital city.

Q: What makes Somalia’s rape crisis particularly concerning?

A: The fact that men are rarely brought to justice for rape. Rape is rampant, but there’s so little help for victims. After two decades of war, government institutions barely function. The UN has reported 800 rapes just in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, during a six-month period last year. Keeping in mind that rapes are vastly underreported, this is the tip of a much larger problem.

Roughly 370,000 people who mainly fled famine and the fighting in the countryside now live in Mogadishu in camps for the displaced. Many of them are living in shelters made from wood, cardboard and cloth. They often don’t even have doors. Many are women who live alone with their children – some are divorced, others are widows, and some have husbands who stayed behind to guard their land. Either way, they’re disconnected from their communities. But they need to work or gather supplies to support their families. They are raped in those flimsy shelters, or when they go to market, collect firewood, or ride the buses.  

Q: Who is raping these women?

A: Women are raped by strangers and acquaintances as they are elsewhere, but many rapists are no doubt emboldened by the special vulnerability of women in Mogadishu and the weak criminal justice system.  Some women have also been raped by government soldiers, pro-government militia men, or just other “men in uniform” – uniforms are easy to buy in the market.  There’s no lighting in the camps, and women raped at night have a hard time identifying who was responsible.

Q: You interviewed a number of women for this report. Whose story stuck with you the most and why?

A: Each story is heartbreaking in its own way. A common story we heard was of women living in tents for displaced people, who would be raped by one or more men late at night, with their kids next to them. Sometimes the women would scream, sometimes they wouldn’t because the man was holding a weapon to their head. But no one was able to help them because everyone is frightened.

One woman told me that when she used to see a female acquaintance, she’d say, “Hi, how are you.” Now when they see each other she asks, “Were you raped today?”  Rape has become normal – a part of the fabric of their daily lives.

Q: Do women go to the police?

A: Women in Mogadishu very rarely report being raped to the police – there’s such a lack of trust, especially as a lot of women are raped by men in uniform. Also, police often show little concern for violence against women. Only one woman that we spoke with went to the police, and as she told them her story, she began to bleed from the injuries that she sustained during the rape. Instead of helping her, they gave her a mop and told her to clean up the blood—then told her to go home. The police never took her statement.

Q: When rape infringes upon everyday existence like this, how do you change it?

A: This issue goes well beyond individual incidents of sexual violence. Rape of this scale doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Beyond the crime, it is also about women’s inequality, which is linked to education, employment and women’s political participation. Somali women also face other forms of gender-based violence. Somalia has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world. Child marriage and domestic violence are also serious problems. Rape comes together at the intersection of all this violence. It’s not just a rape problem, it’s a problem with women not being considered equal – rape is a terrible symptom of this.

Q: How dangerous is Mogadishu?

A: It feels tense. You have checkpoints, blast walls, barriers and security everywhere. You see men with weapons and military-style vehicles driving around. Every week or so a rebel group carries out a suicide bombing or other deadly act of violence. You hear birds chirping just like everywhere else, but it’s chaos. It’s a free-for-all in terms of traffic. But there is a resilience – people go on living their lives and going places and doing things despite everything.

Q: What do you want to see change?

A: The only way to spare victims the trauma of sexual violence is for these attacks to stop. We want to see community representatives patrol camps together with police, especially at night. We also want to see more female officers. Bringing firewood to the camps so women don’t have to go far on foot to collect it would provide added protection. Latrines are sometimes far from tents and using them at night is dangerous – so make sure the latrines have locks and are lit. Have someone organize women and girls to travel in groups if they need to collect supplies.

We also want better emergency health services. Healthcare providers need the necessary medicines, like emergency contraception. PEP [post exposure prophylaxis] kits, which consist of medication, laboratory testing and counselling, are needed to reduce the risk of HIV infection after a woman has been raped. And, of course, these women need psychological support.

In the short term, the government needs to prevent retaliation against women who speak out about sexual abuse, as in three high-profile cases last year. Instead of targeting victims, the government should investigate and prosecute sexual violence. In the long run, we want women to have political empowerment and gender equality, which are so important to preventing sexual violence in post-conflict countries.

Q. What has Somalia’s government been doing to prevent rape or to help rape victims?

A: Not much. The good news is the government recognizes sexual violence is a serious problem and has made strong commitments to address the problem in a comprehensive manner.  The bad news is that so far, this has not yet been translated into real action.

But just this week, we’ve met with government ministers and other officials in Mogadishu who reaffirmed the government’s commitment to combatting rape. The officials told us they would revise the government’s draft national gender policy to include provisions to address this violence, which is one of our key recommendations. Somalia faces enormous challenges after years of fighting. This is why its government will need help from the international community to make this happen.

Q: Somalia’s government has minimal control outside the capital city. How can these changes come about in the midst of ongoing conflict and lawlessness?

A: This may be the biggest challenge the government faces. The government has real security and capacity issues, and frankly, even if it wanted to make big changes, it wouldn’t be able to do them overnight. But it can start by putting greater efforts into ending any reprisals against service providers and women reporting rape. Ultimately, the government needs to work to reduce the number of rapes. This is a long-term challenge for the government. The situation is so bad that even small steps will be important.

It’s tragic, though, to see these women and what they’ve gone through, and know that it’ll continue happening for some time.