Mareeg Media:“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”- Nelson Mandela
In February, a 12-year-old girl, Aisha Ilyes Aden’s body was dumped at her family home in Galkayu at night, hours after she had gone missing. She was abducted, gang-raped and tortured to death by young men known to her family. As the graphic photos of her ordeal, her body still bleeding were shared on social media, it sparked a public outrage across Somalia and the region with women holding protests to express their shock and anger at what they see a betrayal by successive governments dominated by men who do little to end violence against women and children. This has forced national and regional authorities to break silence and condemn the horrible crime, promising to bring perpetrators to justice as usual.
Within days, four suspects were arrested and, using forensic facilities set up by the United Nations, DNA samples were taken from the victim and the suspects, which sources said have linked the suspects to the heinous crime.
The regional president, Said Abdullahi Deni invited the father of the victim to his residence in Garowe, the seat of Puntland Government and offered his condolence. Whether the new president was using the meeting as a publicity stunt or was genuinely expressing his determination to bring the suspects to justice has become a matter of public debate.
Few days later, the victim’s father told media that two of the four suspects were released despite forensic examinations reportedly implicating them in the rape and murder. The police officer in charge of their arrest did not explain why the two had been released sparking rumours of potential bribery since the perpetrators are from a strong clan, who well represented in government.
According to some sources, government officials and tribal leaders are reluctant to bring suspects to court where they could get a death sentence based on a similar case and are pressurising the parents of the victim to accept monetary compensation for the suspects to be released. However, the father has explicitly refused any monetary compensation and asked justice for his daughter, so other girls can be protected in the future.
As the public anger against the rape subsided with no charge yet brought against the suspects, another 12-year-old orphan, Rodo Abdulkadir Hassan was gang-raped and tortured in Burtinle. Despite her survival, her condition has later deteriorated and she is fighting for life in coma in Bossaso hospital. Her case has not received much attention like Aisha because of her initial survival and the public apparently being numbed by series of endless rape against women and children.
These are not the only rape cases in the region but the brutal nature of violence and the murder involved brought these cases to the public eye. In other rape cases where victims survive, or do not physical resist, the chances of getting public attention are slim, as clan elders get involved to cover up and offer monetary compensation. Such dreadful interventions, and the stigma rape victims face have contributed to the very existence of rape and violence against women.
Just two weeks from Aisha’s murder, a nine-year-old girl living in IDP camp with her mother was raped in the same town. She was gagged asleep and abducted from her makeshift home by a 40-year-old man who raped her for hours. He later released her to return home in darkness, bleeding and screaming in agony. The suspect was later identified as an HIV-infected serial rapist who was never sentenced for his past crimes, as they all ended up in secret settlements. In his previous cases, his family has kept secret that he was HIV-infected to avoid complex negotiations and costly settlements while his victims suffered in silence with no medical support.
The alarming increase of sexual violence against women and children in Puntland comes at a significant time; just a month after a new president, Said Abdullahi Deni, a former Federal Minister in Somalia, was elected for a 5-year term, replacing the former Somali-American Professor, Abdiwali Mohamed Ali who himself served as Somalia’s Prime Minister before being elected as the President of Puntland State in Jan 2014.
Prof Ali, an economist, who portrayed himself as development-minded presided over a reign of corruption that paralysed the security forces in the region and turned the commercial city, Bossaso to which his administration depended almost lawless; governed by his forces during the day and by ISIS militias at night. Businesses in the city were paying two taxes, one to his administration and the other to ISIS. Business leaders who refused to pay ISIS were assassinated or their staff asked to desert or die.
As rape is concerned, there were two high profile rape cases during Ali’s tenure where a teenage girl was stabbed and gang-raped with her ordeal videotaped and shared on Facebook. The rapists received short prison terms with settlement brokered by tribal leaders as both the victim and assailants were from the same clan. They were released after their short-term sentence. In the other case, members from Puntland’s UAE-trained marine forces raped a disabled woman in the coastal village of Gara’ad. As the news of the rape emerged, government officials were quick to cover up, go for financial settlement to silence the victim’s family.
It is against this backdrop that Said Deni was elected through a parliamentary election marred by accusations of corruption where MPs voted for the highest bidder. His election was greeted with widespread protests in his hometown, Qardho, the first for any leader since Puntland was formed in 1998. Only two months into his 5-year term, he is increasingly becoming unpopular due to his ministerial preferences where individuals were said to have bought their ministerial posts and the general insecurity left by his predecessor. Some observers see his reign a continuation of the past.
Sexual violence is common in post-conflict countries like Somalia and at times used as a weapon in conflict. But for the past two decades of its establishment, the international community have supported Puntland State to address sexual violence against women. As part of this support, UNFPA has funded the establishment of forensic lab in Puntland, which has played a key role in identifying the suspects in Aisha’s case. However, without political will and cultural awareness such international support alone will not end the sexual violence against women.
Somali politicians depend on clan leaders for support during elections and in rape cases, are not willing to interfere if it would upset the clan leaders who perceive women as not equal to men in justice. Therefore, these weak administrations are likely to encourage victims to receive state financial support along with clan compensation if that would solve the problem and improve their public image. With lack of effective media coverage, such criminal cases disappear after the social media storm settles and to that end, the state forces keep the suspects in prison for their own safety and for the cloud to clear.
Somali woman activists in both the country and diaspora have worked hard to bring their social plight to the outside world through sharing their stories and educating others. However, they are poorly represented in political platforms. For example, there is only one female MP in Puntland parliament out of 66 MPs because clan elders have refused to nominate female candidates despite the international support given to enhance women participation in Somali political process. When Puntland was first established in 1998, only two MPs were women, one being the prominent politician Asha Gelle Dirie, a women’s rights activist. This was hailed as a new page and a cornerstone for women’s rights in the region. However, after years of political influence by Al-I’tisam (formerly known as Itihaad al-Islamiya) who dominate the economy, Puntland has witnessed a regression in women’s rights.
Financially, the region depends on UN and Western donors who support and advocate for women’s rights and to get this international support, the administration would form a nominal representation for women such as a ministry for women’s affairs, sometimes headed by women who have no record or interest in women’s rights but handpicked by men to avoid ‘noisy’ ones that challenge their authority and defend women’s rights.
The sexual violence against children in Puntland is a serious development and warrants international attention before it is too late. Any inaction by Somali officials or unlawful settlements could have two possible implications for the region. First, any injustice is likely to enrage the victims’ clans or their close relatives who could take revenge by attacking and raping children from assailants’ family. Women would be the victims in all cases. Secondly, the need for justice may force others to seek justice from Alshabaab militants who are known to run their own secret courts in Southern Somalia and provide ‘justice’ from distance, sometimes taking cases from areas they do not control to get popularity and influence.
For the new administration, these cases of murder and rape against vulnerable children will be a litmus test, particularly to the interior minister, Mohamed Abdirahman, who represents the area where these brutal rape cases took place. Any involvement in backdoor settlements by government officials will be scrutinised and noted as mere complicity in crime rather than inability to act.
Somali media should play its role in increasing public awareness, education against sexual violence and support victims of such crimes through appropriate reporting and holding leadership to accountability and where possible support police investigations.
The UN organisations as well as other international agencies such as Human Rights Watch should liaise with Puntland government and monitor the situation to ensure that justice is served in these violent rape cases. International partners should warn government officials that any cover-up in such crimes would not only put to end any international engagement with them but would lead to the persecution of diaspora members involved internationally. Children and women’s rights should come first!
The author is Somali writer with interest in women’s rights and can be reached email@example.com