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Somali women parliamentarians – the predicament of finding a voice

Posted by African Press International on May 15, 2013

  •   By Farhia Ali Abdi.

 “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” Nelson Mandela.

Parliamentary democracy is described as a political system based on the idea that parliament is supreme or “sovereign”. This means that parliamentary democracy is one in which the people choose representatives at regular elections and are responsible for the following:  the formation of  government, the passage of legislation by majority vote of the parliament, the scrutiny and monitoring of the executive government and the public service and other authorities and institutions created by parliament. Most importantly, this scrutiny extends to monitoring the expenditure of public money.

The general belief is that Somalia has never had a free parliamentarian election; in fact Somalia did have its first and the last civilian parliamentary public election in 1960 following the country’s independence. Somali Youth League (SYL) won the majority of the seats by 69 of the 123 seats.






Somali Youth League





Somali National Congress





Somali Democratic Union





Somali Independent Constitutional Party





United Somali Party





Giovani S Partito Liberale





Somali National League





Somali African National Union





Other parties










Source: Nohlen et al.







Current Somalia Parliament:

Inaugurated in August 2012, the Federal Parliament of Somalia and in particular its Lower House composed of 275 clan-based representatives included only fourteen percent (14%) female parliamentarians ended the Transitional Road Map. In September, the same year, Parliament elected a new President of Somalia and adopted the Somali Provisional Constitution. On October 2012, the President nominated the new Prime Minister and in November 2012, Parliament formally endorsed the Council of Ministers as selected by the Prime Minister. Understandably the country has undertaken a historical process of change and has moved forward towards peace and stability after decades of violent conflict that ravaged the country and resulted in widespread suffering to its people. Rebuilding Somalia’s withered institutions with a stable government and a parliament representing the will of its citizens will take a lot more effort and strength, and it is the key to building the country into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

The Voice of Somali Women

“I don’t mind being a symbol, but I don’t want to become a monument. There are monuments all over the Parliament Buildings, and I’ve seen what the pigeons do to them” Tommy Douglas.

As mentioned above, Somali women’s hold about 14% of the seats in parliament is an achievement and does represent progress, compared to the country’s past regimes; civilian or military administrations alike. However, the failure in 2012 to meet the stated commitment on 30% reserved seats for women in the Federal Parliament was largely due to the lack of agreement between the clans which govern the country to allocate an adequate number of seats to female representation. Putting the faith of women in the hands of elderly men in a patriarchal society was misguided ideology. Nevertheless, some regions fared better than others, i.e. Puntland, which is one of the largest regions in the country in terms of land and population, only returned two existed seats occupied by female parliamentarians to the Parliament and failed to fulfil the new 30% seats allocated for women pledge; providing a glimpse into the depth of culturally embedded gender inferiority and biases in the country.

Somali women are not, however, unaccustomed to the idea of pursuing equality. They started the women’s movement during the 40s and 50s, against all odds, to become the beacon of Somali’s hope for independence from the British and Italians. If there is one thing that all generations of Somali women share, it is the desire to keep their country together. They have put this notion of  “country” at the forefront, even at the expense of their own gender equality aspirations, whether they are fighting for freedom from colonization or picking up the pieces in the aftermath of civil war. It was women, for example, in the country’s countless peace accords, noticeably in Arta, Djibouti in 2000, who challenged the delegates to think beyond clan boundaries in drafting a resolution to end the deadlock of indecisiveness.

In the more recent Parliamentary elections, women’s networks within the country and the diaspora took a stand and campaigned and advocated for greater women’s involvement in the political arena and the protection of their human rights. This outpouring of support and advocacy from women inside and out of the country was focused on achieving adequate representation of women in the national recovery process and to obtain political rights in order to gain positions, both in the government and in the parliament. Despite, these strong efforts, the engagement of the current women members of parliament  remains very low and very disappointing, particularly in their silence on the issues of widespread and epidemic sexual violence in the country. While the country and the international community were outraged by the deplorable action of the rape and the arrest of Somali woman and the reporter who accused government soldiers of rape, the women MPs remained quiet.

For the underlining causes of their silence, one can hypothesize that Somali women MPs are perhaps, intimidated by structural obstacles that may be looming behind the male-dominated parliament. Perhaps they are inexperienced and ill-equipped in dealing with the nation’s affairs; or maybe they don’t know what their specific roles and responsibilities are; or conceivably, the media ignores their place and doesn’t draw any attention to the voice of women and their agenda, effectively keeping “women’s” issues from the public eye?

Whatever the causes; these are questions percolating in the minds of all the Somali women who have fought, or have observed the fight, for women’s rights to be productive members of parliament. These women deserve adequate representation and to hear the voices from their members of parliament. Parliaments are not gender-neutral institutions; they have their own cultural norms and rules and there is no illusion that women’s increased representation in parliament will necessarily lead to a quick fix or change; however, for any changes to occur it will require on the part of the women MPs a great deal of effort and time. 

Suggestion for women MPs to move forward:

In this context, increased women’s involvement in Somali political institutions is crucial. Women constitute over 50 percent of the Somali population, and they should be proportionally represented in all legislatures and decision-making bodies. The general belief is that women’s presence in parliament will broaden priorities on the political agenda to include a range of previously important, but unconsidered issues. For Somali women MPs, it’s paramount that the issues of childcare, women’s health, sexual and physical violence against women, gender discrimination, and women’s education, to name but a few, are given far greater prominence. The current Minister for Human Development & Public Services in the Federal Republic of Somalia, Dr. Maryan Qasim gave an interview to IRIN news in 2000; then as a new Member of Parliament and was asked if there are women issues, they (women MPs) would focus on specifically. She responded as follows: “Yes, there are certain issues we would like to focus on – women’s issues, if you would like to call them that. First of all, we would like to strengthen the role of women to the government. Secondly, we would like to draw attention to those issues which affect women and children, such as health care and income generation for women. We would like to address women’s education and schools catering for the education of women and girls. And we want to make sure that women realize that this is their government, not one just for men”.

These are the issues (and there are many more) that are shared by most Somali women. Both the women MPs, and the female Cabinet Ministers, including the author of the above quote have a common responsibility to address all areas relevant to the promotion of gen­der equality and the empowerment of women. Women MPs need to continuously enhance and push forward a Somali women’s political agenda by:

  1. Identifying opportunities to develop equita­ble legislation and gender-sensitive programs that are conducive to change.
  2. Increasing the visibility and influence of women MPs
  3. Establishing a formal mechanism or committee structure through which women MPs can meet and present its work and recommendations to the government.
  4. Advocating the principle of equality and gender sensitivity within the government
  5. Creating comprehensive strategies to develop sustainable programs on women’s issues, and in particular, a strategy to remedy the current gender imbalance in political participation and representation in parliamentary seats.

Somalia government and support for women’s capacity building.

  1. Government has to assist in building women’s confidence and to strengthen their capacity to fulfil their mandates appropriately; which is a crucial ingredient for both government and society at large.
  2. Government has to facilitate an environment in which women feel comfortable to exchange information and to bring forward proposed legislative changes fairly and freely.
  3. Government needs to assist women legislators in addressing specific national gender priorities and to provide all the necessary assistance required to achieve this objective.
  4. Government has to support women parliamentarians by establishing an alliance between women and men in favor of gender equality, thus avoiding the marginalization of gender issues.

Researchers have confirmed, time and time again, that there are differences in gender styles between men and women with respect to leadership and conflict resolution. Women tend to be more participatory and tend to work in a less hierarchical and more collaborative manner than their male counterparts. Somalia’s road to justice and sustainable development cannot be paved with a half measured; it requires sound investments and a resolute commitment to equal liberty, and good governance.

Somali women parliamentarians today, and hopefully more so in the future, have an opportunity to guide the country towards a right and just direction that will benefit all citizens; a direction that will not be buckled down with tired cultural segregation and subordination. Somali women MPs need to speak up and make their voices heard. Lofty ambitions, good intentions and nice words will not produce a progressive Somali society. A gender-balanced approach to politics is required; one that will truly protect Somalia’s future, anything less than that will only amount to a democratic deficit.



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