By Abigail Hencheck, Staff Member

Somalia does not have a great reputation for women’s rights. It hasn’t ratified the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)[1], women only marginally participate in politics[2], and structural barriers often prevent women from enforcing their property rights.[3] Most infamously, Somali women receive very little protection against sexual assault and rape (SAR).[4]

Somali forces and other armed assailants rape, assault, beat, and shoot women with impunity.[5] Since its inauguration in 2012, the Federal Government has done little to address the needs of SAR victims.[6] Recently, however, activity at the regional level has planted the seeds of change.

Most notably, the recent push in Puntland to end impunity for SAR has resulted in some protections for women. In November 2016, Puntland launched the Sexual Offenses Law (SOL).[7] This was the first Somali statute to criminalize sexual crimes.[8] SOL criminalizes a wide range of sexual conduct and broadens the definition of consent.[9]

However, Somali laws are easier to write than to enforce. After a decade-long civil war, regional and federal governments do not always have the local control required to enforce laws.[10]  In the absence of strong central government, traditional justice reigns.[11] Panels of community elders dispense justice based on customary law.[12] Punishments for SAR are weak, usually resulting in a fine or forcing the victim to marry the perpetrator.[13] For this reason, there are significant concerns about whether SOL can eliminate impunity.[14]

Since enactment, Puntland has taken several steps to overcome these fears. In January 2017, five men were sentenced to prison for gang raping a 16-year-old girl.[15] In September 2017, Puntland opened Somalia’s first forensic center capable of producing evidence in SAR cases.[16] Funded by Sweden, the Puntland Forensic Center is a huge step in a country where SAR cases are often dismissed for a lack of evidence.[17]

Despite these steps, there are still significant concerns. While the actual text of the SOL is hard to verify, reports indicate that it is compliant with Sharia law.[18] This raises concerns about what may be excluded. However, Legal Action Worldwide, a nonprofit that advocates for legal reform in war torn countries, framed the issue in terms of what rights the Quran guarantees women instead of in terms of those traditionally denied by sharia law.[19] For example, it pointed out that Quran prohibits “inherit[ing] women against their will or treat[ing] them harshly.”[20] This brand of advocacy could explain the emphasis on Sharia compatibility even if SOL contains broad protections.

The long-term effects and scope of SOL remain to be seen. Despite the initial enforcement in January, reports on subsequent prosecutions remain elusive. This could be because there are none, but it could be because the global news cycle has lost interest. Somalia is a fragile country, news is not abundant, and SOL is still in its infancy. While hope for improvement is certainly appropriate[21], there are also significant challenges and large swatches of unknown information. International and NGO support will be critical if Somalia is to continue its steps towards reform.

[1] Human Rights Watch, Here, Rape Is Normal: A Five-Point Plan to Curtail Sexual Violence in Somalia (Feb. 13, 2014), https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/02/13/here-rape-normal/five-point-plan-curtail-sexual-violence-somalia.

[2] Markus V. Hoehne, Political Representation in Somalia: Citizenship, Clanism, and Territorialtity, 21 Accord: An Int’l Rev. of Peace Initiatives 34, 34 (2010).

[3] Juliette Syn, Norwegain Refugee Council, Housing, Land, and Property Rights for Somalia’s Urban Displaced Women 9 (2016).

[4] Human Rights Watch, supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] United Nations Population Fund, Puntland Pioneering Law Against Sexual Offenses (Dec. 16, 2016), http://somalia.unfpa.org/news/puntland-pioneering-law-against-sexual-offences.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Jason Patinkin, Somali Rape Law Gets First Test, Voice of America (Jan. 25, 2017 4:40 PM), https://www.voanews.com/a/somalia-rape-case-may-test-new-law/3692193.html.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] See id.

[15] United Nations Population Fund, Puntland Enforced Sexual Offenses Law (Jan. 31, 2017), http://somalia.unfpa.org/news/puntland-enforces-sexual-offences-law.

[16] United Nations Population Fund, New Forensic Centre Gives Hope for Justice Against Sexual Offenses (Sept. 19, 2017), http://somalia.unfpa.org/en/news/new-forensic-centre-gives-hope-justice-against-sexual-offenses.

[17] Id.

[18] Patinkin, supra note 10.

[19] Legal Action Worldwide, Best Practices: African Sexual Offenses Act 4–5 (Aug. 2014).

[20] Id. at 5.

[21] Patinkin, supra note 10 (explaining that a federal bill mirroring the Puntland bill is in the works).