On the Role of Women in Building Peace in Somalia
The following is an interview with Asha Omar Mahmud Geesdiir,1 vice president of the Somali Women’s Leadership Initiative (SWLI). Asha, who was in New York to participate in the 60th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), March 14-24, 2016, spoke to the African Peacebuilding Network (APN) on a range of issues concerning women’s role in peacebuilding in Somalia.
APN: How would you describe the role of the Somali Women’s Leadership Initiative?
AG: At SWLI we work for the promotion of Somali women’s rights and seek to empower them across regions of the country. We make demands for women’s political participation at the local and regional levels, both public and private. The efforts of SWLI towards educating and mobilizing women have resulted in getting more women to participate in politics in what can be described as a predominantly patriarchal society. For example, some Somali women have been voted into regional parliaments or become ministers at the regional level. The progress in women’s participation is very encouraging and many are now aspiring to go into parliament at the regional and federal levels in the elections coming up later this year.
Often women feel they cannot realize their ambitions because of rumors that Islam does not allow women in politics. Let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing in the Qur’an or any other written text in Islam that says women cannot represent the people in government. We are all good Muslims, so that is a given and need not be argued. The issue of representation is not Islam—it is the people. This confuses both women inside Somalia and those in the West who are not Somali. We women want to join the men of our country and address the problems facing the people of Somalia, and help in making sure the rights to freedom, education, health and mental health care, safety, and sanitation—for all men, women and children—are promoted. These are things women care about, too, not just men. We therefore encourage women to join political parties in order to realize these ambitions. Now that elections are approaching in 2016, we are putting a lot of effort into promoting female political participation and getting a minimum representation of thirty percent in all government institutions.
APN: Do you see women playing a similar role in building peace in a post-war Somalia?
AG: Yes. Often the power of women in mediating conflicts is overshadowed by the ego of men. Some men are of the opinion that if a woman takes a leadership role then their clan becomes inferior to other clans. While mothers often have children from different tribes, these mothers are unlikely to deal with or raise their children differently because of their tribal identities, which has provoked many men. Moreover, in the past two decades, women have been the breadwinners of the family due to a situation largely caused by war. Therefore, no peace, security, or development agenda in Somalia can be realized without the full recognition of women’s contributions. Nor can peace be sustained without the full inclusion of their views, equal participation in decision-making, and paying full attention to their demands for equity. In the interest of building an inclusive, just, and fair society, Somali women should be regarded as equally effective and legitimate leaders. They should be treated equally with men at all levels, from the federal to regional, especially as Somalia strives to achieve sustained peace, statebuilding, and reconstruction. We Somalis need each other—women and men, young and old.
APN: How do you see the prospects for peace in Somali?
AG: I have spoken before about the potential for what I call “bipartisan symmetry,” which I envision to be useful when defining women’s contribution to the political development of a stable Somalia. Bipartisanship is defined as the agreement or cooperation of two political parties that usually oppose each other’s policies. Here, we can also identify men and women and the gender distinctions which keep us apart on a social and political level. Symmetry is defined as a quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other around a common axis. The axis of which I speak is Somalia. Overall, the active participation of women as operators of peace is essential to constructing a new Somalia for all.
I do believe that Somalia will achieve peace. The situation in the country is much better today. The security situation in Mogadishu has been improving considerably for a while now and more women are represented in government as well as other institutions. Al-Shabaab is getting weaker and the Somali people are no longer afraid of them. We therefore all need to cooperate in rebuilding the country. When Al-Shabaab was its strongest, women took to the streets and demonstrated for peace. SWLI was 2,000 women strong then, speaking out loud and demanding peace and security for our children. We were not afraid because we were taking up the most important cause to keep our society together. Many Somalis now believe that there is no other direction but forward. Somalia is for Somalis, and our people need to believe in their country and be committed to sustaining it.
- Asha Omar Mahmud Geesdiir has served as the vice chairwoman of the Somali Women’s Leadership Initiative (SWLI) since 2015. In this role, Asha recently attended the UN Conference on Women in New York City as part of the delegation of the Somali Minister of Women and Human Rights, Honorable Sahra Samatar. Asha’s previous work with the Somali federal government include her appointment as chairwoman of the Somali National Women’s Organization in Mogadishu and Puntland between 2010 and 2012, and serving as an advisor to Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke on women’s and children’s rights via the coordinator’s office (2009–2010). Her community work in Mogadishu is ongoing, having started Geesdiir Foundation in 2014 as executive director to help Mogadishu’s orphaned children. Asha is also currently the coordinator of the Trauma Center for African Women in Mombasa, Kenya, a position she has held since 2011, and she is the founder and chairwoman of a Swedish NGO called Wadajir: Somali Women and Youth Organization, which she started in 1998. Asha has, by invitation, advocated across Europe and in the United States for Somalia to be accepted as a peace-loving nation, while simultaneously raising awareness about Somalia’s motivated efforts to reunite through the dignity of human rights and equality. Asha works tirelessly to inspire her fellow Somalis to rise up in the interest of sustaining peace. ↩