By Samiya Lerew
Gender inequality is a key social issue that inhibits women from accessing vital social and economic freedom in the same manner as their male counterparts in developing and developed countries alike. However, some countries such as Somalia rank highly on the global Gender Equality Index (Kenschaft and Ciambrone 2015), which makes the issue more prevalent in this country compared to other nations. In Somalia, gender inequality has its roots in sociocultural norms and traditions that persist among the existing communities, with the country’s historic status as a conflict zone further reducing the capacity for women to achieve gains comparable to their peers in other countries. This happens even as global organisations maintain the need for gender equality as a means for applying human rights universally. This emphasises the need for an improved understanding of the ways through which Somalia’s sociocultural and political climates influence the struggle that women in this society undergo when striving for gender equality.
Historically, Somalia has had a tumultuous past in which the social and governmental frameworks necessary for making social gains. Ombati and Ombati (2017) note that the recent developments in the country’s political landscape pave the way for reforms that can increase the gains made in various aspects of the country’s educational, economic, and social landscape. However, the country is still not a signatory to the majority of African conventions such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (UNDP Somalia 2012). This places it behind other countries in the continent in its capacity to ensure that women’s rights the country could then uphold through the implementation of policies that seek to ensure gender equality. As a result, Somalia still lags behind other countries in developing frameworks that safeguard the interests of its female population, thereby limiting their access to opportunities to excel when compared to their male counterparts.
The lack of adequate attention to progress in women’s issues in Somalia has noticeable links in the participation levels of women in the decision-making processes at the community level. In Somali society, women face barriers in their capacity to influence the ways through which political and economic resources get distributed, which further limits their ability to campaign for allocations to issues that affect them (Kenschaft and Ciambrone 2015). In a strictly paternalistic sociocultural environment, it becomes difficult for women to highlight their issues as important, which also fares poorly in the absence of mechanisms for championing for such concerns. For women in Somalia, the sustained practice of traditions such as female circumcision and domestic childbirth further increase their exposure to continued discrimination because of having strayed from traditional and thereby socially upheld ideals (Ombati and Ombati 2017). Although Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been addressed in recent years, the root causes of this ill practice have not been debated fully. It is important to consider the indoctrination that young men experience; particularly concerning the marriage of circumcised women. It is passively instilled into the consciousness of males that their brides are only desirable if they are stitched (circumcised). The demand for circumcised wives is high, so mothers are often compelled to do this procedure on their daughters. Education for boys at an early age is inadequate; they are unaware of the negative impact FGM has on women and their society. We must change the narrative by educating both young men and women on the costs of this practice, otherwise the cycle will continue.
This increases the complexity of campaigning for gender equality in a community environment that focuses primarily on making the female subservient to the male members of the society. Even with these traditionalistic restrictions, women in Somalia repeatedly show their resilience, especially in homesteads where the male family members were casualties of war and the women had to become the leaders of their respective homesteads. In the resultant environment, women play a leadership role in up to 40% of Somali homes, with the extra burden of supporting their families while also engaging in the domestic work associated with the home environment (Ombati and Ombati 2017). In a gender-imbalanced environment, it also becomes easier to allocate additional work to the female members of the family rather than their male siblings due to the influence of sociocultural pressures emanating from the communities in which these women live. In turn, this has a negative impact on the next generation of Somali women since the resultant domestication deprives them of vital knowledge and life skills at the expense of their less disadvantaged male counterparts.
Considering the increasingly pivotal role that women play in Somali society, it becomes imperative to understand how the government could improve opportunities for them to improve outcomes for them and their families. However, the Somali government still lags behind in its achievement of equal representation for women at the policymaking level, with a 3%, 4%, and 27.2% representation at the parliamentary, ministerial, and district levels respectively (UNDP Somalia 2012). This can explain why the government fails to deal with the literacy and education barriers facing girls in the society, which also predisposes them to less adequate socioeconomic outcomes in their adult life. This resembles the strict paternalistic and religious nature of traditionalistic societies described by Hooks (1982), which in this case reduces the emphasis placed on enacting vital reforms such as the acknowledgement of the UDHR and other international frameworks for upholding human rights. This makes it difficult for women in Somalia to gain access to the platforms that they need to address the issue of gender inequality in the country effectively.
The achievement of gender equality in Somalia is a complex issue due to the sociocultural environment in Somali society, which prioritises male issues and maintains women’s subservience to their male counterparts. Although the situation in post-war Somalia saw more women becoming leaders in their respective households, the challenges that they face means that there is a danger of subjecting the next generation of Somali women to a similar culture of inequality. The lack of adequate representation at the political level also reduces the capacity for women leaders to influence policy change and introduce policy changes that improve support for women in sociocultural and political fields. Overall, women have risen to play prominent roles, but there is a danger that paternalistic and deeply religious sociocultural norms may devalue any progress achieved in the field of gender inequality. Therefore, there is a need to improve women’s representation at the political and community levels while also introducing reforms that ease their participation in economic and educational fields to improve the country’s capacity to tackle gender inequality effectively.
Hooks, B., 1982. Chapter 1: Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience. In: Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. s.l.:Pluto Press, pp. 15-48.
Kenschaft, L., Clark, R. and Ciambrone, D., 2015. Gender inequality in our changing world: A comparative approach. Routledge.
Ombati, V. and Ombati, M., 2017. Gender inequality in education in sub-Saharan Africa. JWEE, (3-4), pp.114-136.
UNDP Somalia, 2012. Gender in Somalia, s.l.: United Nations.