Asha Haji Elmi is a politician, peace activist and the founder of Save Somali Women and Children, an organisation whose aim is to rebuild the lives of abused Somali women.
Violence against women and girls has become part of the daily life for many Somali families. Particularly vulnerable are the 1.36 million internally displaced persons (IDP) in Somalia. There are real risks to women and girls in IDP camps, where they are seen as easy targets for rape as they walk to market, collect firewood and go about their daily tasks. Human rights abuses against women, which also extend to sexual slavery, are often the result of the breakdown of communities brought on invariably by armed conflicts.
Asha Haji Elmi highlights the importance of women peacebuilders at an Elders debate in November 2014
Rape especially is a violent abuse that devastates women and girls, many of whom are young children. It’s not only a physical defilement, but also a vicious emotional assault that traumatises its victim. Although all cultures, religions and civilisations universally shun this violent and heinous crime, in the Somali and Islamic culture, women are seen to represent the honour and dignity of the entire society. Violating this sacred honour is absolutely unacceptable in the Somali culture.
Just recently I was with two young high school girls just a few hours after they were raped. Seeing these young victims was hugely distressing as it would be for any human being with feelings and emotions. The empathy one feels for these girls is greater if you are a women and a mother, as I am. Talking to these girls, I was completely saddened by their vulnerability, and hopelessness. They were angry, sad, disgusted and destroyed by feelings of violation and ruin. “I wish I was dead!” one of them commented. Rape beyond physical defilement is a robbery of the victim’s freedom, dignity, emotions and humanity.
Asha Haji Elmi at a SSWC centre in Somalia
Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC) believes that women are central to transforming not only their lives, but also lives of their children, families, communities and the entire society. We believe in empowering women to come up with solutions. Over the years SSWC has built a network of women across Somalia to tackle issues of violence against women and children. We also advocate raising awareness, internationally. We have initiated crisis centres with a ‘one stop’ model to provide comprehensive support to survivors of sexual and gender based violence. These centres provide medical, psychological and legal assistance to survivors. So few women will go to the police because they are not taken seriously or, even sometimes, abused again. The shame also keeps women from reporting the crime but here, at the centre, run by women for women, they know they will get love and care and practical help.
Vocational training at SSWC for survivors of gender-based violence
Once survivors recover from abuse, there is ongoing support to create income-generating activities, so they can rebuild their self-esteem, and in cases of domestic abuse, women can find independence from their abuser through their own income. Skills training at these centres means women and girls can continue with their counselling sessions and improve their living standards afterwards.
However, we know it is a drop in the ocean as we have far more victims than we can cope with, but we do our best and give care to those we can.