Somalia is ranked the fourth most dangerous country in the world to be a woman, fueled by a three-decade-long civil unrest. Women have borne the brunt of hardships as a result of poverty, conflict, and clan-based culture, according to UN Women, a UN organisation dedicated to gender equality.
Women face rape and other forms of violence both from the government and al Shabab militant group.
Al Shabab, since its formation in 2006, has inflicted serious sufferings and punishment for Somali women. The al Qaeda-linked group has stoned to death and flogged a considerable number of women, accused of committing crimes ranging from extra-marital affairs, to pre-marital sex, to theft.
Women are not given fair legal representation and they are not allowed to appeal. They are sentenced to death or flogged without clear evidence.
Despite women facing brutal violence, they form an important social base for al Shabab.
But why do women play an important role critical in the resilience of a terror group hell-bent on punishing them?
“While al Shabab imposes restrictions upon women, it can provide some security and its courts often uphold Islamic family law to their benefit,” a report by International Crisis Group said.
Some women recruit, fundraise, spy or smuggle arms for the group. Women’s cooperation with al Shabab is not out of sympathy. Their cooperation is a matter of survival.
“Where it controls territory it can, however, offer women and girls a degree of physical safety – hardly complete, but still appreciable – in a country where they are otherwise exposed to violence,” part of the report read.
Through its courts, al Shabab upholds tenets of Islamic family law that, to some degree, protect women’s rights in matters such as divorce and inheritance in a manner the official justice system does not. While many instances of forced marriage between militants and women and girls exist, for some families marrying daughters into al Shabab bring some sort of financial stability.
Women gather intelligence that enables military operations or extortion, or ferry explosives ahead of attacks, taking advantage of the fact that security forces tend to watch women less closely than they do men.
But women do not participate in military operations directly and they are not part of the group’s decision-making organ.
Although al Shabab deploys far fewer women suicide bombers than the Nigerian jihadi group Boko Haram, in some cases it used women to carry out suicide missions because they attract little suspicion.
In July 2019, a female bomber blew herself up inside Mogadishu mayor’s office, killing eight people, including the mayor, Abdirahman Osman Yarisow.
Al-Shabab, which claimed credit for the attack, said it was targeting the UN special envoy to Somalia who visited the mayor’s office and left an hour before the attack.
Due to poverty and seeking ‘better future’, young Kenyan women have traveled to Somalia to join al Shabab or have been recruited within Kenya to aid in the group’s attacks.
Although the Somali government did some progress; enrolling more girls to schools in areas under its control and increasing the number of civil servants, the country’s broken justice system offers women little.
The country’s parliament is yet to pass a bill that seeks to promote women’s rights.
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