Somali rape culture reveals crisis

Famine. Piracy. Drought. Chaos. Death.

These are a few words that are associated with Somalia. Now, rape is an identifier that can be added to that list.

Since the collapse of the Somali central government in the early 1990s, most communities are left to their own devices, relying on old customs and laws without the support of the central government. This leaves them vulnerable to attack by rebel warlords.

One prominent rebel group is the Shabab, who are committing many of the rapes. The number of rape victims is growing.

Women’s rights activist Mama Hawo Haji has seen the rising amount of victims in the hospital where she works in Somali’s capital of Mogadishu.

“In the last two days alone, we have taken 32 rape cases to the hospital,” Haji said to IRIN News.

Political chaos and famine appear to be major contributing factors to these attacks. Aid and financial support are also limited for humanitarian organizations.

In these desperate conditions, women are forced to venture from their homes alone to find food and water. In doing so, they become vulnerable to sexual assault.

The Shabab take girls young as 10 years old and make them brides of their commanding officers. These marriages are neither legal nor ceremonial. The marriages are often compared to sexual slavery. “He did whatever he wanted with me … night and day,” one former bride told The New York Times. If the women refuse to marry, their punishment is death.

The actions of the Shabab have created an environment of fear in the region. Additionally, the Shabab are using a tool that governs most Somalis: religion.

Ninety-eight percent of Somalis are Muslim, the majority being Sunni, and the Shabab claim that their religious beliefs serve as justification for violence against women. The Shabab believe their actions are a jihad that will restore Somalia to “pure Islam,” a concept on which they have not fully elaborated.

However, others see this justification as a religious guise, recognizing the group’s need to further their political gains.

Campus Ministry Coordinator Max Carter believes the current unrest a misinterpretation of religious texts.

“You’ve got to subject theology to critical analysis,” Carter said. “There are no free passes.”

While the misuse of Islam in rationalizing rape is distressing to many, the fear inflicted upon Somalis by the Shabab has resulted in silence over the issue.

Women who have been raped are considered tainted, leaving their prospects for the future – particularly marriage – limited. In keeping with this fear and embarrassment, a number of rape cases are not reported, making the actual total of rape cases higher than originally recorded.

While the exact number of sexual assaults is unknown in Somalia, it is a certainty that the count is continuing to rise.

Solutions to Somalia’s rape crisis have yet to be determined.

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