More than just a victim

According to Sister Somalia, ‘Somali women face several forms of gender-based violence: forced and very early marriage; “temporary marriages” to al-Shabaab; almost universal female genital mutilation; rape and other forms of sexual violence; as well as human and sex trafficking. Young girls, unaccompanied women and displaced women are particularly vulnerable. Acts of sexual violence usually go unpunished and survivors face high levels of stigma. If a woman does speak out, she risks being accused of promiscuity or adultery (which al-Shabaab punish by beheading or stoning), ostracized or charged with a crime herself.’

Ilwad Elman is a One Young World Ambassador for Somalia and founder of Sister Somalia.

Violence against women is not country specific; it knows no creed, religion or age. Violence against women is a cross cutting, global issue: a weapon, often justified by culture or traditional practice.

As the director of the first rape crisis center in Somalia - a country considered one of the worst places to be a woman – I have learnt firsthand that to eradicate violence against women more than aid and emotional support are required.

The crisis center, Sister Somalia, co-founded by my organisation - the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center - began responding to the emergency needs of rape victims and survivors of physical violence. We began by offering women free health services including post-exposure prophylaxis treatments, shelter in safe-houses for those at risk of re-attack and counselling to equip survivors to cope with reintegration in the community.

Given the environment our survivors return to, Sister Somalia often finds that the same women need help time and again.  Consequently, relocation grants have now been introduced into our services enabling survivors to relocate to a different area and along with a life-skills training.

Victor not victim

But in order to create change, real change, women who have survived the most heinous violence must be viewed as a victor as well as victim.

Mentoring survivors to become leaders within their new communities, supporting them to create linkages with other women to come together, and develop their own community protection mechanisms are Sister Somalia initiatives that stretch beyond aid and emotional support.  Without looking at longer term, more sustainable ways to empower women to be able to deal with their daily context, cycles of violence continue.

My organisation works with survivors of sexual and gender based violence on the principle of helping women throughout their recovery, equipping them to rebuild and reclaim their lives as well as empowering them to sincerely harness and understand their own unique ability to inspire change.

I have experienced many proud and humbling moments since the opening of the first Sister Somalia centre in Mogadishu. However, the biggest reward is seeing women and girls transform from their most low and vulnerable into ambassadors for gender justice. Such individuals refer others exposed to violence and live as an example that women should not tolerate impunity. An attack does not define your identity.

I have been fortunate enough to see this change hundreds of times and it is thanks to these very heroines that Sister Somalia has been able to expand into three regions in Somalia. Each time Sister Somalia expands into a new region, established centers are sustained and run by these very women.

The endemic violence against women and girls in Somalia can only be overcome when survivors and their communities band together, speak up and demand justice against gender based violence.

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Amplification of Community Voices

Last month on 14 February 2014, hundreds of survivors and supporters in the fight for gender justice in Somalia joined me and the Elman Peace Centre as part of the global campaign One Billion Rising.

Together we sat down with decision makers, unified, to make our voice heard and develop a road map to break free from injustice. Amplifying community voices, the leaders of our campaign were visionary survivors of violence able to call a different bracket of society to action and highlight the plight of ordinary Somali women.

Justice for survivors and gender based violence remains an uphill battle globally. However there are many indicators to suggest that women are on an ascending and unstoppable track to abolish violence against women internationally.

Before Sister Somalia was founded, there were no resources for victims of sexual attack or abuse in Somalia.

I will remain on the frontline of this battle in Somalia and continue to work towards making Somalia a safer, more inclusive place for women. I will continue to capitalise on the increasing dominance of internationally recognised days that highlight gender equality and the plight of women to ensure women in Somalia are not left behind.