International Women’s Day Conference Report: Somali Women: “making the margins livable”
March 08, 2015 – 41 Catherine St. Ottawa, Ontario
To mark March 8th, 2015 International Women’s Day, the Somali Women Circle Network (SWCN), an Ottawa based network that focuses on social, economic and political empowerment of Somalits, and Hiiraan Online, an Ottawa based Somali news website, co-hosted a one-day conference entitled “Somali Women “making the margins livable.” SWCN also supports and promotes the equality and constitutional rights of Somali women.
The conference brought together women activists, researchers, and practitioners of different ages to discuss issues pertinent to Somali women and ways to engage in a public dialogue about Somali women taking leadership roles in Somalia. The conference had covered areas such as the promotion of good governance, human security and the pursuit of lasting and sustainable peace for Somalia. More than hundred people attended and participated in various debates and dialogues pertaining to Somalis in the Diaspora and inside Somalia.
Somali women have participated in, and contributed substantially, to the development and sustainability of Somali society throughout Somali history. Women were instrumental in the struggles that led to Somalia’s independence, as active participants in freedom fighters’ movements in the 1940s and 50s such as the Somali Youth League (SYL). To elaborate, women mobilized and recruited new members for these movements, promoted and raised awareness, collected funds and membership fees, and secured housing for movement members. Many were imprisoned, tortured and killed, as they fought for the Somali independence. What is ironic is that, even though Somali women sacrificed a lot for the Somali state, and have continued to be the backbone of Somali society in the aftermath of the total collapse of all state institutions in 1991, Somali women continue to be absent from their country’s political leadership and public decision-making processes, and lack access to formal justice mechanisms. According to the UNDP, the inequalities suffered by Somali women and girls, who make up more than 50% of the population, are “key factors contributing to Somalia’s extremely poor human development index.” Hence it was timely to host a one-day conference where participants took stock of the resilience and strength of Somali women who tirelessly make the margins of societies livable whether they are in the Diaspora or in the Horn of Africa. In addition, this one-day conference provided a platform to exchange knowledge, to make Somali women’s issues visible, and to build synergy among Somali women organizations. The overall objective of this one day event was to highlight Somali women’s strengths, and underscore the challenges, opportunities and barriers they face while at the same time taking into account contextual issues.
There were several panels with multiple speakers covering a number of topics. The speakers engaged the participants in conversations and ensured that the audience had ample opportunities to participate and ask very productive questions and gave comments.
Speakers in the first panel covered topics ranging from paying tribute to Somali women’s history and key contributions, to taking stock and looking at where Somali women are today, and concluded with highlighting the impact of marginalization. This panel particularly addressed the strength and fortitude of Somali women, and paid tribute to brave Somali women who fought and contributed to the foundation of Somalia’s independence and statehood. Women such as Xaawo Tako and Xaawo Jabril were honored and some other unsung heroes whose history was not written, but who were never forgotten by Somali women. The current situation of Somali women in different parts of the world and their significant contributions to rebuilding Somalia were also discovered as well as their resilience in the face of marginalization in the diaspora.
The Speakers in the second panel covered the topics of positive mental health, cross-cultural parenting, and developing positive cross-cultural identity. This panel revealed Somali women as resilient parents in the diaspora who make the margins of societies livable. Positive mental health was described as more than ‘the absence of a mental health illness’, but rather it is a positive sense of well-being, or the capacity to enjoy life and deal with the challenges one faces. Also this panel focused on the importance of parenting in a multi-cultural context and its effect on the family members’ mental health. Speakers underscored the importance of understanding our children’s behavior within the context of who they are becoming within the context of the host cultures, and how best to help our children reach their full potential and self-actualize. Positive parenting in cross cultural settings pointed out Somali women’s resilience and their efforts to create positive cultural filtration in order to raise well-grounded young men and women in the diaspora.
In addition, this panel addressed cross-cultural identity and womanhood in Canada. This resonated with many of the participants who were young Somali women professionals who are navigating the terrain of multi-layered womanhood. The Somali-Canadian community is one of the largest African Diasporas in North America – where “gender, race, religion and other differences intersect to form complex and nuanced emerging identities”. Intergenerational relationships were highlighted as pertinent issue to second-generation Somali-Canadians as they negotiate these shifting identities within the context of society where racism, Islamaphobia, and sexism are everyday experiences.
The third panel focused on Somali women’s role in rebuilding the Somali State as well as how women are paving the way for comprehensive reconciliation and institution building. This panel addressed Somali women’s resourcefulness in the face of barriers and how they continue to be the backbone of Somali society. This panel underlined the fact that Somali women have been and will be part of their country and are equally responsibly to take the country’s leadership in their rebuilding efforts. In addition, the speakers reiterated that Somali women consistently played big role in holding the country together financially through remittance and other middle sized business. Somalia is lagging behind in major areas such as human rights, gender equality, education, health, and economic performances. Needless to say, women are needed to take part on the rebuilding of the country’s institutional capacity. In short, Somalia needs its women.
This one day conference included with an evening roundtable/debate session entitled Fagaaraha Session #15, which is a popular and mobile public forum (previous debates were held in Minneapolis, Mogadishu, Ottawa), that facilitates dialogue and debate on Somali issues. It also brings academics and politicians alike to debate pertinent issues on Somalia and recommend solutions.
In this Somali language session, the participants spoke about Somali word for a public platform for debating. This was the first time that Fagaaraha debate was dominated by female debaters. The debate covered questions on leadership and women in the context of Somalia, the characteristics of effective leadership and the kind of leadership that can steer Somalia from conflict to sustainable and lasting peace.
The conference highlighted the fact that Somali women have committed themselves to the nationalist cause both in the past and in the present by raising political consciousness, yet they continue to find themselves outside of the very political institutions they fought for and outside the written history upon which the country was built. Today, Somali women continue to struggle for the basic rights and recognition they deserve. Somali women have struggled for recognition and equality in all aspects of their lives, even though they have shown their resilience inside and outside of the country and by making the ‘margins livable’.
The following recommendation will potentially facilitate the country’s needed gender mainstreaming:
- Recognize the effective contributions of Somali women in the country’s leadership within both public and political organizations. And utilize Somali women’s talents more broadly in public office and private- enterprise.
- Accept Somali women’s involvement in all leadership roles within the Somali government without cultural or gender biases that render their contributions to the country’s affairs.
- Engage in social political and cultural awareness campaigns to recognize the effective and potential contributions of Somali women in all aspects of political, social and cultural development of their country.
- And finally, consider women issues in Somalia as a core human rights concern supported by the government and by international community partners.
We thank all the speakers, especially to those who visited us from overseas, The moderator, Adrian Harewood, Host CBC TV, Sadiq Warfaa, the Host of Fagaaraha, as well as all our supporters and volunteers. SWCN appreciates you valuable contributions.
For more background about the the Somali women’s Circle Network, please visit our website: http://somaliwomenscircle.org/; or facebook – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Somali-Women-Circle-Network/222962414428330. Or email us your thoughts at: Somaliwomenscircle@gmail.com
 UNDP Somalia, Gender Equality, and Women’s Empowerment Strategy, 2011-2015:4. 2Ibid.
SOMALI WOMEN CIRCLE NETWORK (SWCN)
Women should be seen and not heard wouldn’t work.
Historically,Somalia is a patriarchal society which has tribal-based social structures. Forthis reason, women’s role has always been downplayed. Nevertheless,besides traditional roles of child-rearing and household chores, Somali womenplay culturally important economic roles in farming, herding, and in business,as long as the male is still seen as being in control. In recent years, however, the civil war,drought, and male migration have dramatically increased the number offemale-headed households, but these changes didn’t dampen theplace of women in Somali Society. There are cultural challenges thatSomali women face, such as the society’s perception of women- that sayswomen are lesser sex that should depend on men for survival andleadership. Somali women’s contribution is unrecognized, under-valued andunder-utilized. Somali women’s role has alsobeen downplayed in the decision-making processes, which naturally resultedin gender disparity and systematic discrimination against women. Exclusion ofwomen from the peace process directly discriminates against half of thepopulation and deprives them of engagement in constructive politicalchange and promotion of peace and prosperity. This needs to be addressed inorder to increase women’s participation and representation at all levels ofdecision-making processes in Somalia.
Recently,there have been social movements among women inside and outside Somalia. MoreSomali women are speaking out and taking center stage in the national affairs,and the institution building of their motherland. As a result of theseawakening, gender became mindful in every region of the country. A good example is the recent staged peaceful demonstrationof hundreds of Somali women taken in the streets of Mogadishu, the capital cityof Somalia, demanding women’s representation of the current and the futurepolitics of Somalia. Many other debates about gender equality arepercolating the minds of all Somali women, especially those in the Diaspora.
Currently,Somalia’s government is in a transitional phase and therefore, in their questto establish an electoral and constitutional process took the first stepin addressing gender equality by allocating women’s seats in the NationalConstituent Assembly, as well as the Interim Independent ElectoralCommission from 20 percent. Though, there are a few strides made toimprove women’s seats, in principle, we felt that there are more work to bedone practically for the implementation and accountability of genderequality.
Women’sperspective needs to be heard on the principles of inclusion, goodgovernance and justice. Somali Women Circle Network (SWCN) committed toplay a positive role in promoting the inclusion of women’s agenda in Somalia’snational priorities. SWCN supports the emancipation ofSomali women, promotes their equality and constitutional rights for the futureof Somalia. SWCN was not pleased to the 20% seats allocated for women.
Therefore,SWCN recently held a few events to bring Somali women living in Ottawa areatogether. Over two hundred women representing various professionals, businesses,students and mothers attended the events and voiced their voices. As afollow up, and to address and make sure that Somali women’s voices areheard by the Somali political actors, the SWCN invited the head ofthe United Nation representative -Special Envoy to Somalia honorable Mr.Augustine Mahiga in Ottawa during his visit to Canada, and he met with thecommunity. He addressed the role of Somali women in the future of SomaliPolitics, and in reference to the United Nation’s Resolution 1325. Thisresolution recognizes women’s role in peacebuilding and development. Thespecial envoy vowed to address gender equality in Somalia’s state-building.
SWCNalso took part a Somali Diaspora dialogue with the current Prime Ministerof Somalia Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who as well addressed the women’s issuesin regard to gender equality (50/50). He assured the SWCN that hisgovernment will do their best to make sure that women’s equality isaddressed. The result though wasn’t (50/50) did improve women’srepresentation in power sharing by increasing it from 20% to 30% (GaroweII Principles).
SWCN alsosent a letter to the organizers of the Somali Forum held in London, England onFeb 23, 2012, advising them about the need for gender equality in Somalia.We strongly believe that peace and nation building that excludes women asa contributing factor will not be a sustainable peace. As a country, we needto talk about the elimination of social unjust and economic relationsincluding unequal gender relations, and this is what SWCN will advocate onbehalf of Somali women. SWCN will continue speaking for women’s rights andequality and in doing so will bring the attention of Somali women to thosewho are involved in Somalia’s politics.
This network was architected by few professional women living inOttawa, Canada, who saw a lack of gender balance in their country anddecided to act on it, by appealing to all Somali women to stand up anddemand justice for themselves and for that of their fellow citizens.