Rape with impunity - plight of Somalia's women refugees

Publication Date: 
December 15, 2010
BBC News
BBC News

The three Somali women sat huddled together in a corner of an empty, dusty room in a camp for displaced people in northern Somalia, their faces etched with grief and resignation.

They were all rape victims. Two of them had been gang-raped, by up to six men.

One of the women had a baby tied to her waist. She had been attacked while trying to prevent her daughter from being raped. In the ensuing struggle, the attackers broke her husband's hand.

I dared to ask if this child, no more than several weeks old, was the result of that rape. But she told me the attack had taken place when he was a month old.

Another of the rape victims said, somewhat aggressively, that she was always telling outsiders about the sexual abuse she had suffered - and that it did not make any difference to her situation.

However, she relented and spoke to me with quiet hatred of the six men who had not only raped but had also stabbed her. She showed me what she said were stab wounds on her limbs and forehead.

These were brave women speaking out. I cannot identify them in any way - nor can I give their exact location for fear of reprisals against them.


Roberto Russo of UNHCR in northern Somalia

Displaced girls often have to go far away to isolated places where men attack them” - Roberto Russo UNHCR


Our conversation was interrupted by an irate policeman who was uncomfortable with them telling their stories to the outside world.

Sex attacks against internally displaced women in such camps take place with impunity for the attackers.

The women are far from their homes in the south and central parts of Somalia like Mogadishu, where the fighting is worst.

They may not be in danger of dying from a bullet but in the camps they lack the protection of the male members of their clans and so are seen as easy prey.

'Police collusion'

Roberta Russo from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees works with young Somali women who are victims of rape. She told me the perpetrators are all too frequently young men in the towns surrounding the camp.

The only way some of these young women can earn a few cents a day is collecting rubbish.

"The internally displaced girls often have to go far away to isolated places where men attack them," Ms Russo tells me.

A prominent campaigner against sex attacks talked to me passionately and with commitment about the difficulties of bringing prosecutions against the perpetrators.

There are not enough police and frankly, she said, the police sometimes colluded in the attacks or carried them out themselves.

She was a brave, highly educated and intelligent woman - feisty, but not foolish enough to talk to me openly about the extent and nature of this problem.

When I asked why, she motioned with her hand across her throat - there was no question she could lose her life if she made her comments in public.

Part of the culture

IDP camp in Gaalkacyo, northern SomaliaWomen have none of the traditional clan protection once they have fled to the camps

Gender-based violence - referred to as GBV by the UN and other international organisations - is one of the ugliest aspects of a 20-year conflict in Somalia that has seen 1.5 million people internally displaced within the country's borders.

Another 670,000 have fled abroad, mainly to Somalia's East African neighbours.

In 2010 alone, more than 300,000 Somalis have fled fighting between the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and al-Shabab militants with links to al-Qaeda.

The women's rights campaigner becomes even more animated when I ask if rape has become ingrained.

Somalia, she tells me, never used to be like this. If the husbands, brothers, fathers say nothing, then it becomes a culture.

In the past, there was a culture of looking after the victim. A generation of fighting, she said, had shut down all community spirit.