A court in Somalia’s capital has handed down six-month jail sentences to a 19-year-old alleged rape victim and the journalist who interviewed her after convicting them on defamation charges brought by the accused.
The alleged rape victim – a reporter for the UN-funded Kasmo FM radio station – gave a video interview to Mohamed Bashir – a journalist for the Shabelle radio station – in which she alleged she was raped at gunpoint by other journalists working for state-owned Radio Mogadishu. The woman and journalist who interviewed her were arrested soon after those accused filed a defamation suit.
The alleged rape victim received a suspended six-month sentence and will be confined to her home. The director at Radio Shabelle also received a one-year prison term related to the case, and both journalists from the news organisation are required to serve their time in jail.
This was not a one-off case in Somalia: In February this year, Luul Ali and a journalist who interviewed her were both arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for making false accusations and “insulting a government body”, a case that captured world attention.
Ali said she was the victim of gang rape in a highly publicised case allegedly involving armed men in military uniform in Mogadishu. In February this year, Ali and the journalist who first interviewed her were arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for making false accusations and “insulting a government body”. The ruling was later quashed on appeal after sustained international pressure on the Somali government.
Ali’s decision to speak up was brave: In Somalia’s deeply conservative society, rape victims are usually looked down upon. Standing outside the courtroom flanked by her husband and her lawyers after one of the hearings, Ali declined to comment on her case to Al Jazeera.
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The stigma attached to rape is deeply entrenched in Somali society, and it is difficult for male Somali journalists to speak with victims about rape. It is even more difficult for the female victims, since most of the country’s journalists are men.
“Anything involving sex is hard to cover in Somalia. It is easier to speak to bomb victims than rape victims,” said Mohamed Mohamud Dahir, a popular presenter at SKY FM.
“The consequences for the victim after she goes public can also be life-changing. If you interview her and people know who the victim is, she will be stigmatised and may never find a husband – or she may even be disowned by the society.”
Hard to verify
That’s not the only issue for journalists trying to report on rape and sexual violence in Somalia. “Some victims come to journalists six months after it had happened with no letter from a hospital, doctor or the police. Without evidence it is difficult for the cases to be reported by the media,” explained Mohamed Ibrahim, secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists. “If they report, journalists can get arrested and end up in prison – and some have already been arrested for doing that.”
With Somalia still in the midst of a civil war that has lasted for more than two decades, it is impossible to know the true extent of rape. The government and NGOs are only present in some areas of the country, and they often don’t agree on the prevalence of sexual attacks.
Representatives from non-governmental organisations – who asked to remain nameless to protect themselves from retribution – say thousands of women are raped in Somalia every year. Many of the NGOs report the cases without taking the alleged victims to hospitals, for medical tests, or to the police station.
Some NGOs – especially in Mogadishu and Hargeisa, the second-largest city – offer cash to victims to buy medication and pay for their transportation to health facilities. With extreme poverty in many of Somalia’s camps for internally displaced persons, and in the absence of stringent medical check-ups, false reports of rape are said to be common. Sex workers who are unable to buy HIV medication and contraception have been known to report cases of rape to obtain money to buy medicine.
Sexual violence in all countries emerging from conflict is a problem, one the Somali nation is not exempt from. The federal government of Somalia takes sexual violence extremely seriously.
“Occasionally there are fraudulent cases,” said Sagal Sheikh-Ali, programme coordinator at the Somali Women Development Centre. This has led to some NGOs changing the way they report incidences of sexual violence.
“In most instances when a rape takes place, we are called and informed of it. We send a team of caseworkers to visit the survivor, or ask the person contacting us to bring them to us if the survivor is able. Then we conduct an interview to find out about the incident, which is then followed with the survivor being taken to have a medical test. These steps provide enough evidence to suggest almost immediately if it is rape,” Sheikh-Ali added.
According to the UN, there were 800 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in Mogadishu during the first six months of 2013. In 2012, the UN recorded 1,700 cases across 500 camps for internally displaced people in the capital.
But local NGOs that collect sexual and gender-based violence data quote numbers that are far higher.
This has not gone unnoticed by the UN-backed government in Mogadishu. “We do not deny rape happens. But the numbers are exaggerated by people who want to tarnish the image of the government,” Ridwan Haji Abdiwali, Somalia’s government spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
“Sexual violence in all countries emerging from conflict is a problem, one the Somali nation is not exempt from. The federal government of Somalia takes sexual violence extremely seriously; it is something that is completely unacceptable in Somali culture, is against our laws, and has no place in the new Somalia.”
Those who have worked in Mogadishu say any statistics should be treated with much scepticism. “NGOs tell you one number, the government tells you that number is wrong and victims come to you without evidence months later. And we stay away because we can’t tell who is telling the truth. It is impossible to know the true extent of rape in Somalia.” Dahir said.
With journalists threading carefully around rape for fear of arrest or being duped, and NGOs and the government disagreeing on the prevalence of rape, the real victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Somalia will continue to suffer in the dark.