Mogadishu, Somalia – After a protracted conflict that has lasted more than two decades, there’s now a sense of relative calm and security in Somalia. The unidentifiable gunmen that patrolled the streets have been replaced by men in smart uniforms.
Road blocks that once divided the city between government and al-Shabab controlled areas have been removed; traffic flows freely. Somalis are flocking to the beach, old houses are being renovated and are glistening with fresh coats of paint.
But not everybody enjoys the newly found sense of security.
Camps filled with Internally Displaced Persons – people forced to flee the violence and insecurity of their home regions – are still a common sight. But for the women who live in them, violence and insecurity are still pertinent issues.
“Some of them were armed with AK47s. They slapped me, ordered me outside and raped me. They did all kind of things to me. I couldn’t fight them or defend myself. How could I against seven armed men?“
– Nura Hirsi, rape survivor
Nura Hirsi is a young widow living in an IDP camp of West Mogadishu. She says she was raped by seven government soldiers when they forced entry into her home on Saturday, December 29.
“It was 1am, my children were sleeping when these men entered my house,” she told Al Jazeera. “Some of them were armed with AK47s. They slapped me, ordered me outside and raped me. They did all kind of things to me. I couldn’t fight them or defend myself. How could I against seven armed men?”
Nura said that nobody would come to help her during the attack.
“People are afraid to leave their houses at night to come see what is happening. Everybody is afraid; they are scared for their lives.
“After they left, I cried. In the morning I went to the hospital and they gave me some medicine to take, but I didn’t tell them of all that took place. They are Somalis and I don’t want people to know.”
Authorities do not take allegations of rape – even gang-rape – seriously, she said.
“I went to the police but they were not really interested. People get killed in Mogadishu; I didn’t die. To them rape isn’t so serious. Nobody is ever arrested. Even the person in charge of the IDP camp was not interested. He didn’t say anything when I told him. I would even like to speak to the radio stations – but who will give me that chance?”
The new Somali government has only been in power for two months, but, according to the Director General at the Ministry for Labour, Youth and Sports, Aweis Haddad, state troops are not primarily responsible for the sexual violence against women such as Nura.
“A lot of people are able to put on government uniforms and pretend to be the police or the army, but they are not. In some cases it’s the Shabab,” he said.
“We treat every crime seriously. If people in government are found to behind such things, action will be taken.”
Stigma of rape
Abdalle Muumin is a Somali journalist. He said much of the country’s media ignored sexual violence, leading to an enduring stigma faced by rape victims.
“There is a culture in Somalia, where a victim of rape will report that so-and-so attempted to rape them, but nobody is ever comfortable to come forward, speak up and say that they were raped,” he said.
“Another reason why you don’t hear anything about IDP-related news is because editors and media owners are not interested in that. When reporters file news regarding IDPs it is not aired; in fact it’s referred to as shuban biyood [“diarrhoea”].
“Editors and owners are more interested in political news; it cost money to produce a radio package. In politics, there is money.”
Fartun Abdisalaan Adan is a co-founder of Sister Somalia, an organisation formed in 2010 which opened the first rape crisis centre in Mogadishu.
Attitudes towards rape are slowly changing, she said. The subject is no longer taboo – but a lot more needs to be done to tackle it: “When we first started our work, there was a lot of denial from the government and men, and a lot of women were ashamed to speak up – but slowly we gained their trust. Now people in Somalia talk about it, no-one can deny that it is happening, although the response is still slow.”
“Women in the IDP camps are especially vulnerable… A man can come in any time and do whatever he wants to you, knowing he will get away with it.“
– Fartun Abdisalaan Adan, Sister Somalia
Rape is still a huge problem, however, and as many as seven new victims arrive each week at Sister Somalia’s Mogadishu office alone.
“Women in the IDP camps are especially vulnerable. If you look at IDP camps, it is mostly lone women with children who live there,” she said. “[The camp] is not a house, there is no door. A man can come in any time and do whatever he wants to you, knowing he will get away with it.
“When [victims of rape] come to our office, our first reaction is to take them to a hospital to get medical help and pay their fees; then it’s back to our centre where the counselling begins. We also discuss whether they want to go back to their home, if they choose to move then we assist them with relocation. We have also established a safe house where they can stay temporarily until suitable accommodation is found. Currently, we are assisting around 400 women who have been raped or whose daughters were raped.”
The safe house is especially useful to young girls who have run away from their families after becoming pregnant as a result of rape.
“Younger girls, often 16 or 17, are usually afraid to tell their parents they have been raped and may now be pregnant, for fear they will not be believed, especially by their fathers; so they run away and stay at our centre. These younger victims are the ones who are most reluctant to report they were raped because they are also worried about their future and whether being a victim of rape will lessen their chances for marriage.”
‘Not a women’s issue’
Speaking via a telephone from Galcayo, south central Somalia, humanitarian activist and this year’s Nansen Refugee Award winner, Hawa Aden Mohammed, expressed concerns about the cultural reservation among victims to speak out, as well as the seeming culture of impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence.
“It is not so easy to pursue legal action when the law is so relaxed or non-existent,” she told Al Jazeera. “In my experience, 90 percent of women who were raped are reluctant to go to authorities because they are afraid or they are not confident anything will be done. There is also a need to educate; a lot of these women feel ashamed, they view themselves as haram, spoiled, dirty – and are unwilling to talk about it.
“The government needs to do more to address the issue of violence against women in all its forms. This is not a women’s issue, it is a society issue.”
Back at the ministry for labour, youth and sports, Aweis Haddad concluded: “The government is doing it best to prevent such things. One of the first things that president did when he came to office is speak out against rape and gender based violence.”
Names of rape survivors have been changed to protect their identity. The headline of this article has been altered since its original publication.
Follow Laila Ali on Twitter: @LailaInNairobi