The devastating drought in the Horn of Africa is threatening progress made towards stamping out some of the worst forms of abuse against women and girls, Save the Children is warning.
After an unprecedented four consecutive failed rains in Somaliland, and despite a global decline in child marriage, the aid organisation is deeply concerned by encountering repeated cases of forced child marriage as a result of the drought.
New research by Save the Children found that 51 teenage girls (out of 1,104 households) had been mar-ried off because of the way in which the drought was impacting their families. Moderate to severe hunger was also evident in most of the eleven districts included in the assessment, while 10% of fami-lies interviewed reported that one of their girls has been sexually assaulted.
This comes as Somaliland’s first ever so-called ‘Anti-Rape’ law was given a further seal of approval in the parliament’s Upper House, which voted for the bill with a majority on Saturday (7 April 2018). Save the Children and partners such as the Women’s Rights network, NAGAAD have campaigned to bring the Sexual Offences Bill to parliament, where it received an initial endorsement in December 2017.
Timothy Bishop, Save the Children’s Somaliland / Somalia Country Director, said: “A third of women globally experience some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. As if that wasn’t shock-ing enough, many of these crimes are being perpetrated against girls that should be in primary school – yet are married off the men old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers.
“Save the Children fully supports the Sexual Offences Bill and the progress being made by the Ministry of Employment, Family and Social Affairs of Somaliland to protect women and girls from all forms of sexual violence, whether perpetrated by a stranger or a relative. The more funding made available for medical and psychological support for survivors, the more likely they will be to report crimes and seek justice. With the worst drought in living memory and the ongoing conflict driving cracks through the economy and the fabric of society, never has this legislation been more important.”
Save the Children calls on all decision-makers to urgently prioritise the protection of women and girls from rape and other sexual offences, not just in Somaliland but also in southern regions of Somalia. Drought has displaced one million people in the whole of Somalia in 2017 alone , leaving women and young mothers especially vulnerable to assault.
This includes girls like, Caaisho*, 15, who was married off to an older man in the midst of the devastat-ing drought. She said: “I was 14 years old when I got married. My father wanted it. I could not say no to him. He had nothing, his livestock died. My husband then came up to my father and said I want your daughter.
Although the prevalence of child marriage is decreasing globally, by 15% over the last decade, the rates of decline are lower in Africa than elsewhere in the world. The total number of girls married before they turn 18 is estimated to be 12 million a year.
Save the Children is also campaigning for the governments of Somaliland and Somalia to set the mini-mum age of marriage at 18 years.
Somaliland’s Sexual Offences Bill is the first piece of legislation to address gender-based violence. Un-der the draft bill, all forms of sexual offence would be criminalised, including rape, gang rape, sexual assault, trafficking and forced early marriage. The bill has now been agreed in the lower and upper house of parliament, but still needs approval from the President.
A major player in this campaign for the Sexual Offences Bill is Nafisa Yusuf, Executive Director of the Women’s Rights network, NAGAAD, in Somaliland. She said: “I believe the President wishes to send a clear message that rape, or any form of sexual abuse, will not be tolerated in Somaliland, either moral-ly, culturally, nor legally. By signing off this new law, that message will be loud and clear.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about this Anti-Rape law is that it opposed religious teachings, which is simply not true. The root cause of sexual violence against women is unequal power relations between men and women. Conflict, displacement and the cultural changes that follow, are factors which exacerbate these unequal power relations. In short, the problems faced by women and girls in Somaliland are not due to religion, but culture, which changes when societies are precarious following seismic changes.”