The Somali Election: Women's Participation in Politics is Crucial
The participation of women in all spheres of life is crucial to the advancement of society; anything less creates a deficiency in the development of humanity. The call for gender equality must include the increased participation of women in security and democratic governance processes, which ultimately rely on the participation of the entire society. Women are the backbone of Somali society and the engine of the community, and as such it is pivotal that the upcoming election in Somalia increases women’s political participation.
For decades, Somali women have suffered marginalization from leadership and decision making activities, yet they make up 49.3% of the population. (1) Few women, if any, make it to higher ranks of formal Somali institutions. With the current election results, the federal government only has 85 female leaders out of 276 seats. (2) Even seceded semi-autonomous states like Somaliland and Puntland, which have enjoyed relative peace, have not fared any better in attaining a representative number of women in parliament.
Gender disparity in Somalia has ensured that females, unlike their male counterparts, do not have access to equal educational and employment opportunities or productive assets. This translates to a lack of economic empowerment opportunities for women, and inevitably serves to alienate them from a political scene which requires candidates to have financial muscle. At the same time, societally ingrained prejudices against women create scenarios in which those with power shy away from financing or endorsing women in their political and public office ambitions. (3) This is further fueled by a clan system that also hinders Somali women’s participation in the public sphere of her society. A lack of female leadership roles within clans is reinforced by the frowned upon and ultimately failed attempts of women to take on such decision making roles. And when the fragile nature of Somalia requires an electoral system based upon clans rather than direct democracy, clan leadership becomes crucial when considering the balance of political power. (4) Simply put, Somali culture isn’t supporting the rights of women to participate in political processes.
Despite the challenges, recent years have seen a great push from women to ensure that their voice is heard and respected on the political front. This move has been championed by women’s groups which insist that female inclusion in decision-making is a human rights issue. (5) A number of women, while not participating in politics itself, have increasingly taken to activism or founded NGOs as a way to amplify their views. The social and economic position of women has improved because of these projects and has helped to bolster female participation in leadership roles. (6)
Women have also put in impressive efforts at networking and sharing ideas, and succeeded in lobbying the Somali National Leadership Forum for the creation of a Special Measure in the way of a quota system. The quota requires that 30 percent of parliamentary seats in each house are reserved for women. Many view this quota system as an effective way to redress years of gender disparities and provide more opportunities for women’s involvement in politics. (7)
Social media has also played a pivotal role in amplifying the voices of Somali women around the globe without fear of backlash. For example, the Facebook group ‘Vision 2016 for Somali Women’ has over 8000 members from around the world. Groups like this create safe platforms of empowerment that give women opportunities to have their voices heard. The usefulness of social media to provide knowledge sharing opportunities is key to the gender equality agenda. A few months ago at the Africa Women Leader Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya, Amina Mohamed, a Somali-Kenyan diplomat, spoke about gender equality and emphasized that “leaders are not born but made through the process of socialization, education and training. We can train women leaders through exposure by identifying talented girls and women and giving them assignments that will build their confidence as well as skills in leadership. Providing opportunities to lead early in life will build confidence and offer a sound foundation for future leadership.” She shared the entirety of the speech on her Facebook page, reaching a broad audience and inspiring hundreds to continue the dialogue. (8)
Ultimately, there must be a multi-sector approach to encourage women's participation in politics. At present only 85 of 246 MPs are women. This is 23% of elected officials, falling short of the the 30% quota. Legislation and quotas alone will not translate to positive changes if there is no simultaneous effort to take a stance against deeply rooted sexist views. Going forward, as the Somali election landscape evolves and direct democracy comes into effect, women must be encouraged to claim their roles as both voters and candidates in order to share their voice through representative leadership in the country.
Edit: The article has been updated to account for the latest election results.
Fatma Ahmed is a an experienced strategic communication expert working in the Horn of Africa and has a strong interest in women, peace and security. You can follow her on Twitter: @_FatmaAhmed. Fauziya Abdi is the founder of Women in International Security - Horn of Africa, and is a stabilization and conflict transformation expert. You can follow her on Twitter: @wiis_hoa.