Madame President, Excellencies,
Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Council on my recent visit to Somalia, which took place from 14 to 18 July, at the invitation of the Federal Government.
While this was my first visit, Somalia has been a priority country for my mandate over the past decade. Following the signing of a Joint Communiqué on the Prevention of Sexual Violence in May 2013, my office, through the Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in conflict, has been actively working with UNSOM and other UN entities to support the Government in strengthening its formal justice system.
The purpose of my visit was to engage with the Federal Government and Federal Member States; to take stock of ongoing efforts; understand the challenges and determine the nature of support to be extended to the Government in its efforts to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence.
During my mission, I visited Mogadishu and Baidoa. In both locations, I met with senior Government officials, Parliamentarians, UN and AU officials, frontline service providers and civil society representatives.
I could not meet with survivors due to security constraints, but I am satisfied with the level of information I obtained from the UN system and implementing partners who stressed how sexual violence in Somalia remains a matter of grave concern. The number of cases documented are just the tip of a deeply structural problem, with countless women and girls subjected to or living in fear of sexual violence. They stress on “countless”, as victims are often invisible and inaccessible, with nowhere to report these crimes, and nowhere to turn.
It is an environment in which women and girls are particularly vulnerable to conflict-related sexual violence owing to deeply-entrenched gender inequality and discrimination, continuing insecurity, weak rule of law, large-scale displacement, limited reach of State institutions, lack of access to areas controlled by Al-Shabaab and the recurrent humanitarian crises.
In Baidoa, the President of South West State and other members of his cabinet – the Ministers of Justice and Gender Equality – informed me of persistent insecurity, particularly in IDP camps, with displaced women and girls from marginalized minority groups facing the highest risk of sexual violence owing to a lack of or limited access to protection mechanisms.
I met with more than 35 civil society organizations and frontline service providers in Mogadishu who depicted a situation where sexual predators are emboldened by a weak legal system and the stigma attached to reporting leading to justice being elusive for most victims. They highlighted how the conflict has eroded the strength of all key institutions, especially the criminal justice system, severely limiting human rights protection for survivors and their ability seek justice in a secure and dignified manner.
They raised the serious challenges they face in reaching vulnerable women and girls, especially those with disabilities due to insecurity, restrictions imposed by parties to the conflict, and targeted attacks on aid workers. The majority of survivors do not have access to comprehensive health services including sexual and reproductive health services. Al-Shabab has banned most non-governmental organizations and all UN agencies from areas under its control.
Concerns were also raised about the common practice of abduction by Al-Shabaab and forcing families to endorse forced marriages. In this regard, I was encouraged by an innovative pilot project in Baidoa supported by International Organisation for Migration which provides rehabilitation and reintegration assistance to women and girls formerly associated with Al-Shabaab. Social workers shared information about several cases, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was abducted and forcibly married to a member of Al-Shabaab but escaped with her two children born from rape; and that of another young victim who paid 50 million shillings, the equivalent of $2500 USD in order to escape Al- Shabaab.
Recognizing the potential of this project and the urgent need to reach more victims of violent extremism and terrorism, UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, the inter-agency network which I chair, is already working to replicate and scale up this initiative.
Impunity for the perpetrators of crimes of sexual violence was also raised as a major concern with victims’ fears of stigmatization and reprisals, the weakness and complexity of the legal system, lack of an adequate legislative framework and functional judicial system and the use of traditional justice systems resulting in chronic underreporting.
Despite ongoing efforts of the Government to strengthen the formal justice system, many survivors of sexual violence depend on traditional mechanisms for justice, including customary law, Xeer, and Sharia where they are forced to marry their rapist to avoid bringing ‘shame’ and ‘stigma’ to the family. Local culture with its custom of compelling victims to marry their assailants or accept livestock as compensation for their assault constitutes a major obstacle to justice. Concerns were expressed about the safety of a 9-year-old girl who was raped by a 27th brigadier soldier in Adale a few days before my visit and the likelihood of the case being settled through traditional justice system.
Despite this extremely challenging situation, I am pleased to inform you that my dialogue with the national authorities was frank and constructive. There was no attempt to deny or downplay the extent and gravity of these crimes. In fact, there was a clear acknowledgement that sexual violence has been and is being perpetrated by all parties to the conflict, and an expression of political will to address this scourge.
Despite some commendable efforts of the Government such as the constitutional review or the Sexual Offences bill approved by the Federal Cabinet since May 2018, or efforts led by the Attorney General’s Office and training of the Somali Police, Somali Armed Forces and National Intelligence Security Agency throughout 2018, progress is slow with terrorism remaining a major threat to peace and stability in the country.
As a direct outcome of my visit, the Government committed to working with the United Nations system to develop a new implementation plan for the Joint Communiqué, in the form of an Action Plan on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, which will focus on key elements of Security Council resolution 2331 (2016), which outlines the nexus between terrorism and conflict-related sexual violence, and resolution 2467 (2019), which calls for a holistic, survivor-centered response to conflict-related sexual violence.
The Government has also expressed the commitment to work towards the delisting of its forces from the Annex to the annual Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and has sought the technical support of my office to establish a roadmap in this regard. In the last Secretary-General’s report, the Somali National Army, Somali Police Force and allied militia, as well as the Puntland forces are listed as parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence.
In my engagement with the Deputy Prime Minister and other Government officials , I made it clear that full implementation of the Joint Communiqué will be key on the road towards delisting.
Other key messages I imparted to the Government include:
- The importance of tackling conflict-related sexual violence primarily as a matter of peace and security, by engaging Ministries of Defence, Internal Security and Justice, alongside the Ministry of Women, Human Rights and Development;
- The importance of addressing the root causes, along with a recognition that ending sexual violence necessitates ending the gender inequality and discrimination which underpins both the abuse and accompanying social stigma, starting with the ratification of relevant international and regional women’s rights instruments;
- The prompt enactment of the Sexual Offences Bill which is still before the Parliament, noting that the Somali Penal Code classifies sexual violence as merely an “offence against modesty and sexual honor”;
- The need to strengthen the participation of the Federal Member States in all the initiatives of the Federal Government and more especially in the development and implementation of the new Action Plan; and
- Last but not least, how critical it is to engage a broad range of stakeholders including the government, civil society, traditional and religious leaders and the donor and diplomatic community.
I have agreed with the Federal Government of Somalia to deploy technical expertise from my Office at the earliest convenience to support the elaboration of a new action plan to address and respond to conflict-related sexual violence.
My Office will be working closely with the UN system as a whole in supporting the Government of Somalia.
Though peace remains elusive, and violence and insecurity has become normalized through decades of conflict, survivors and frontline service-providers remain resilient. What they want, above all, is a response from their government and the international community that shows that they are not forgotten.