Girls and Girlhood Interrupted: Two Decades of Statelessness and Militarized Violence in War-torn Somalia

by Shukria Dini. Structural violence, the absence of state, state institutions, the absence of social services and the rule of law in Somalia for over two decades has perpetuated socio-economic and security threats of a large population and in some cases, destroyed the lives of Somali girls and most of all denied them a chance of growing up in a stable environment, experience a joyful and secure girlhood like other girls in secure countries. Armed groups that have taken advantage of the lawlessness in Somalia continued to unleash terror indiscriminately and perpetuated atrocities against defenseless civilians including women, men, girls and boys. Innocent girls and boys were robbed of their loved ones – parents (their primary protectors and providers), relatives, friends and neighbors and turned their lives upside down. 

Considering the decades long protracted political insecurity and militarized violence in Somalia, there is no literature that captures the plight of Somali girls and what they have been going through after the collapse of Somali government that paved way for heavily militarized violence. Having been born and brought up in this country, I wrote this piece to address literature shortages on the impacts of statelessness and its effects on Somali girls. It is my hope that this piece will encourage other researchers to conduct more studies on Somali girls to add more knowledge on this under-researched topic. 

I have done my best to capture the specific experiences of Somali girls and critically examine different ways in which the decades-long civil war has affected their lives. I have highlighted some of the core effects but this list is endless.

The absence of state protection has denied girls the very right of enjoying life without fears of any kind.  Forced displacement, losing loved ones and even early marriages are some of the issues girls have been forced to grapple with since the fall of the rule of law in Somalia. They have been forced to grow up without experiencing safe girlhood. They were denied a chance to play the childhood games like any other girl in a peaceful country and in some cases at their tender ages they have been forced to assume motherhood roles having lost their mothers and guardians to the deadly violence that has literally torn Somalia apart.  Women and girls bore the brunt of the statelessness in Somalia.

I conducted interviews with 10 adult Somali women in Eastleigh  District (1) in Nairobi, Kenya from August to September 2011. Nine of them were born in Mogadishu, Somalia and fled from Somalia together with their families in the mid 1990s to Kenya. When the state collapsed and the civil war emerged, four of the five young women were between 5 and 7. One of the respondents was however born in a refugee camp in Kenya. During my interaction with them, these were some of the questions I posed: how old they were when the Somali state collapsed and when the civil war broke out? What happened to them and their families? And how were they affected by the social upheaval?  The open-ended questions enabled them to provide their views of the impacts of state collapse and the civil war in a more detailed way. I further reached out to women organizations leaders operating in Mogadishu who had first hand information on the particular and different ways in which women and children were affected by the prolonged militarized violence.

The tragic outcome of this protracted conflict and statelessness in Somalia is that an entire generation was born in a hostile and deprived environment and inherited life without birth certificates, access to proper educations, healthcare, safety as well as other opportunities. For instance, the destruction and looting of public institutions such as primary and secondary schools, universities and hospitals has denied Somali children both boys and girls access to free education and healthcare for two decades. This will pose a major challenge for both the deprived generation and overall the post-conflict Somalia to recover from two deadly decades of violence and destruction.

With no opportunities to attend to schools and widespread insecurity, out and within their homes, Somali girls were forced to take up roles such as cooking, cleaning while others became babysitters and guardians of other family members. They took up motherhood roles at tender ages.  Living in lawless and militarized environment, defenseless Somali girls having no state protection became easy target by the warlords and their armed militias. With the absence of state protection and the absence of the rule of law, Somali women and girls became victims of rape and forced marriages perpetrated by armed groups. They were deliberately targeted whenever they went out of their homes either to fetch water, firewood and food for their families. Not even those who were left at home or living in IDP and refugee camps were spared either. Because of the widespread insecurity and violence, some of these girls ended up of becoming refugees in neighboring countries such as Kenya where they continue to live in a vulnerable life with no access to basic amenities and other opportunities. This has not only prolonged the sufferings of the Somali people including girls but has intensified their vulnerabilities. 

Streets in the capital city, cities and towns that were once filled with children playing different games became deserted and empty as sporadic shootings and fire exchange by the many armed groups rent the air reducing Mogadishu to no man’s city.

Somalia is in the midst of ending two decades of transitional political arrangements and this offers a golden opportunity to rebuild strong state institutions that will take Somalia and its people out of the ruins and deliver protection and much needed services. Protection of Somali girls is important to their long-term personal growth and their overall empowerment. Promoting the rights of girls including their right to grow up in a secure environment, access to education, healthcare, state protection, psychosocial healing and the right to play is urgently needed in post-conflict Somalia to reverse over two decade-long, trauma, losses, deprivation and insecurity. In order to ensure that their specific needs are being addressed in the post-conflict stage, I cannot overemphasize that it is critical to place the needs of Somali girls at the centre when planning national post recovery programs in post-conflict stage. It is also crucial to have credible and competent women in the next Parliament and in all other state institutions in post-conflict and post-transitioning so that such needs and protection of girls can be effectively accommodated and delivered through proper policies and programs. Let us make Somalia a safe haven for children both boys and girls.

This is a follow up article of SID Journal Development Vol. 55.3 Gender and Economic Justice produced in partnership with AWID.
Shukria Dini is a Somali-Canadian researcher. She is the founder and director of  Somali Women’s Studies Centre and currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya. This article is based on her analysis on ‘Girls and Girlhood Interrupted: Two Decades of Statelessness and Militarized Violence in War-torn Somalia’ published in early June 2012 in the electronic book Invisible Girl – Ceci n’est pas une fille', edited by Gun-­‐Marie Frånberg, Elza Dunkels and Camilla Hällgren, and released by Umeå University, Sweden. The article can be found under Theme III: Girlhood Interrupted, Chapter 20, pages 167-18. 
(1) Easleagh is a district in Nairobi where many Somalis including refugees from Somalia live. It is also called little Mogadishu. Many Somalis have established businesses and it is known to have uncollected garbage, open sewages and terrible roads but it is a vibrant business zone where Somalis and non-Somalis do their shopping.
Photo: United Nations Photo/flickr