Reflections from the ‘Women’s Political Participation in Somaliland’ event that took place on the 2nd of February 2017 and was presented by the UCL Development Planning Unit DPU, Somaliland Mission to the UK and Somaliland Focus (UK).
Picture: from left Amina-Bahja Ekman, Michael Walls, Nafisat Yusuf Mohammed, Hodan Hassan Elmi, Malou Schueller and James Firebrace
The concept of women’s exclusion from political participation is commonplace throughout the world. The principles of inclusion and equality occupies a central place in the discourse of political participation. According to the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation, women all over the world continue to be largely marginalised from participating in politics and face a myriad of challenges and barriers in doing so. For women in many African countries, these challenges are made up of a complex set of factors and often embedded in local tradition, culture and religion. Women in Somaliland are not excluded from some of these challenges and barriers.
Somaliland is a self-declared independent republic, and politics, as it is practiced there, is deeply embedded in local history and culture. The social and political structure is composed of clans, sub-clans, lineage and blood groups (Ahmed and Green, 1999). Somali tradition is strongly egalitarian and both men and women play active roles in their society. Women are not restricted from being vocal or following a career path. In fact, in recent years, roles have so changed that women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners. Somali women have always played significant roles, and are often involved in mediation during conflict. Going back in the history of Somaliland, especially during the period of conflict, women played important roles in peace and reconstruction, and many took on ancillary duties of running public offices. Despite Somali women’s widely acknowledged economic and social contributions, politics remains patriarchal; dominated by men at the expense and exclusion of women from crucial decision-making processes (Walls, 2013, Ingiriis and Hoehne, 2013).
Executive Director of NAGAAD, Nafisat Yusuf Mohammed, in her presentation, highlighted that Somali women face economic, social, financial and cultural challenges that hinder their political participation in Somaliland. In highlighting some of the challenges Somali women face in political participation, Nafisat mentioned that some of these barriers are embedded in socio-cultural practices and many times, is manifested in several ways which lead to political party discrimination and lack of support from family. One of the main issues highlighted in the presentation was the patriarchal system that discourages women from participating in politics. As political parties are rooted in the clan system, which is male dominated, women have limited space to run for positions. One of the noteworthy narratives from the presentation was the significant role that the clans and lineage structures play in women’s participation. For instance, during elections, some women tend to vote for their male clan members.
Nafisat also touched on the topic of the prevalence of female genital mutilation FGM within women aged 15-49 and access to Justice. She however mentioned some positive moves as well. For the first time, there are four female ministers in Somaliland and there is also an ongoing discussion between NAGAAD and parliament over the quota agenda point. There is also a continued long-term advocacy programme that aims to address all the challenges such as establishing and implementing a quota for female representation in parliament.
Following on from Nafisat’s presentation, Hodan Hassan Elmi, Head of Governance, Advocacy and Communication at CARE International in Somalia/Somaliland provided some background information about what CARE International does in Somaliland and how they work with NAGAAD. She stated that CARE International works very closely with local organisations such as NAGAAD, and is also engaged in capacity building. She mentioned that some of the barriers that women in Somaliland face also have to do with lack of capacity and funding. She mentioned that there are challenges for young Somali women to participate in politics, which is often dominated by older women. She also encouraged the diaspora community to engage with grassroot organisations. Hodan stated that there is an opportunity for young Somali women and everyone interested in being part of the movement to get involved. Further, she mentioned that there are different avenues to engage in, such as new social media platforms, which present powerful tools in this so-called ‘information age’.
Dr Michael Walls, Malou Schueller & Amina-Bahja Ekman presented preliminary findings from their ESRC-funded project ‘Political Settlement in Somaliland: A gendered perspective’. In their presentation, the issue of ‘clanism’ as well as how it is seen in the community was highlighted. It was apparent from the presentation that clanism and patriarchy play a major role in Somali politics. From their findings, some respondents believe that ‘clanism’ is a bad thing and is on the rise. Some respondents also believe that ‘clanism’ is getting stronger and some even suggested going back to tradition. Findings also highlighted the degree of polarization in responses. Responses also highlighted a fear of political and cultural vicissitudes. This was demonstrated in some of the responses in which some respondents felt that women’s engagement in politics is a Western phenomenon/agenda and would rather prefer women’s roles as ascribed by Islamic sharia. Some respondents believe that women should not be politically active at all. However, there were some agreement all respondents both male and female, young and old, that women cannot stand for some positions such as for the presidency, Imam and as a judge.
From the presentation, it was evident that clan and religion overlap and people’s perceptions are diverse on gender identity and roles. It was also mentioned that culture and religion strongly influence gender identities and used as justifications to define what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. It was further mentioned that responsibilities have changed for both men and women, and although women have more responsibilities, they are not seen as capable to participate in politics. The presentation provided the context to explore and question what in the political settlement makes it difficult for progress to take place. Some positives were also highlighted especially progress in the area of some policies which looks fine on paper and constitution but never implemented. Some of the suggested ways forward included the following:
- Counter act this idea that this is a Western agenda.
- Donors need to think about their own agendas and how they promote their selves.
- Strengthening women’s rights and organisations
- Women’s needs at the local level needs to be addressed
- Engaging men
The last segment of the presentation was from James Firebrace who gave his presentation on the drought crisis in Eastern Somaliland and shared his key findings with the audience. He stated that in 2016, Deyr rain fell throughout Eastern Somaliland and was followed by 3 years of erratic/poor rain fall. This was followed by large-scale loss of livestock, increasing malnutrition; problems related to poor and insufficient water, vulnerable groups – pregnant women, displaced people. Some areas of the east received limited rainfall during the Deyr rainy season. James stated that some responses to this disaster have come in the way of fundraising and contributions from the diaspora community. However, he stated that there is the need for large agencies to get engaged and also bringing the stranded population back home.
The session ended with a vibrant discussion around progressive alliance for change, dealing with the drought crisis, discussant around the social, political, economic and cultural barriers that women face and ways all those interested in the region including the young and the diaspora community could get involved.
Ahmed, I.I., and Green, H. R. (1999) The heritage of war and state collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: local-level effects, external interventions and reconstruction. Third World Quarterly, 20(1), pp.113-127.
Bradbury, M., Abokor, A.Y. & Yusuf, H.A. (2003) Somaliland: choosing politics over violence. Review of African Political Economy. Volume 30, Issue 97
Ingiriis, M.H. and Hoehne, M.V., (2013) The impact of civil war and state collapse on the roles of Somali women: a blessing in disguise. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 7(2), pp.314-333.
UN Women – Women’s leadership and political participation http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation (Accessed 12/02/2017).
Walls, M. (2013) Women’s political participation in Somaliland. In: Journeys from exclusion to inclusion: Marginalised women’s successes in overcoming political exclusion. (164 – 197). International IDEA: Stockholm, Sweden. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1417498/ (Accessed on the 09/02/2017).
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/jan/27/somaliland-clan-loyalty-women-political-prospects (accessed 05/02/2017)
Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.