Commentary Violence

Underreported and Unchecked: Sexual Violence Against Somali Refugee Women

Yifat Susskind

I recently returned from Kenya, where Somali women and families are seeking refuge by the thousands. I met with Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji of MADRE’s sister organization, Womankind Kenya, a grassroots women’s organization of Somali pastoralists. Here is what I learned.

Amal* left her village in Somalia when she realized that there was nothing left there for her. There was no food and no water. So she gathered her emaciated children and began the long trek to the refugee camps in northeastern Kenya. She thought that being forced to leave her home would be the worst thing to ever happen to her.

That was until she was attacked and raped by bandits on the way.

I recently returned from Kenya, where Somali women and families are seeking refuge by the thousands. I met with Hubbie Hussein Al-Haji of MADRE’s sister organization, Womankind Kenya, a grassroots women’s organization of Somali pastoralists. We talked about the most urgent needs for famine refugees—for food and water—and about how MADRE and Womankind Kenya can work together to provide for them.

And Hubbie told me about Amal and other women like her, who are arriving in northeastern Kenya traumatized not only from famine and displacement—but also from being raped along the trek.

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Sexual Violence Rising in Famine-Struck East Africa

Women and girls seeking refuge at displacement camps must walk for days, along the long and dangerous routes to the Somalia-Kenya border. Bandits and Al-Shabaab militia patrol much of southern Somalia and have infiltrated deep into Kenya, often attacking women and their families to steal the few possessions they have. In Amal’s case, they took the only piece of gold jewelry she had ever owned. She had been hoping to trade it for food.

In these attacks, women have been raped. Even once they arrive at the displacement camps in Kenya, they are not safe. They need food and water, but there is not enough to go around. Many are turned away for lack of resources, relegated to the outskirts of the camps. There, local communities are struggling, not only to sustain themselves through drought and famine, but to offer aid to even harder hit famine refugees from Somalia. The women of Womankind Kenya come from these very communities and have long been mobilizing to confront this famine.

Even as refugees fight to survive, the threat of sexual violence persists. Women and girls are especially vulnerable when they venture out in search of firewood for cooking. As more refugees pour into the area, women must walk farther to find wood, putting them at greater risk of rape. In the area of Dadaab, now the biggest refugee camp in the world, violence against women and girls has quadrupled in the past six months.

Grassroots organizations like Womankind Kenya are a lifeline for rape survivors, especially those who have been turned away from the camps. These women are isolated and vulnerable, cut off from the communities of support they might once have had. Womankind Kenya can do more than meet their pressing needs for food and water. They can speak to women in their own language, breaking through their isolation to offer them care and a new source of support to lean on.

Looking Forward

We’ve seen this surge in sexual violence after disaster many times before. We saw it after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, after the massive flooding of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In each of these cases and many more, major disasters uproot communities and leave women and girls vulnerable to violence, including rape and sexual assault. In the chaos and loss of social cohesion that routinely follow disaster, women and girls in places as far afield as Somalia, Nicaragua or the United States are rendered more vulnerable to sexual attack.

To combat this rise in sexual violence, MADRE partners with local women’s organizations around the world that know well the gender-specific threats women and girls face after conflict and disaster – organizations like Womankind Kenya.

Now, Hubbie explained to me, Womankind Kenya is working to fill the gap in access to counseling services and medical care for rape survivors. MADRE is working with them to set up a mobile clinic to bring essential services to refugee women and their families. They will collaborate with local doctors and nurses, who they have worked with before, to reach out to women who need care. They will help women overcome fear of stigma by offering counseling and medical services that respect women’s privacy, and they will help women find their path to recovery.

When the women of Womankind Kenya reached out to Amal, she had all but given up hope. She had just arrived and was living at the edge of a camp. She had nothing, after having been robbed by her attackers. Womankind Kenya gave her emergency food and water, and what’s more, they listened to her story. It was only a first step but an essential one—for Amal and all of the refugee women and girls traumatized by rape.

*Not her real name

News Politics

Somali-American Activist Ilhan Omar Makes History During Minnesota Democratic Party Primary

Michelle D. Anderson

Omar's win means she will likely become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States.

Ilhan Omar, a noted feminist and liberal policy advocate from Minnesota, has won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary in the 60B Minneapolis House district.

Her win means she will likely become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States, the Star-Tribune reported Tuesday. It also means incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who was first elected to the House in 1972, will not serve a 23rd term.

After the primary results came in, Kahn told the Star-Tribune that Omar “mobilized a lot of people that we didn’t see before in previous elections.” This year, according to Omar’s campaign, 5,868 people from the district voted in the primary—an increase of 37 percent from the 2014 primary.

Omar, 33, currently works as the director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women, a local nonprofit organization that seeks to empower women to become engaged citizens and community leaders, according to the group’s official website.

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The group has a special focus on first– and second-generation immigrant women like Omar, who describes herself as an “intersectional feminist, mom, part-time social justice crusader, full-time political junkie” on Twitter.

On November 8, Omar will face Republican Abdimalik Askar, a Somali-American elementary school principal and community entrepreneur in the general election. If Omar wins, she will represent an area that includes the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a community with a large number of Somali and East African immigrants, along with the University of Minnesota. The Star-Tribune noted that the district is “heavily DFL.”

“Our campaign is about connecting with people and engaging them in the political process. We are uniting the diverse voices of our district—long term residents, East African immigrants and students. I will make sure their voices are heard at the Capitol,” Omar said in an official statement released after her primary win.

She added that as a woman of color, people told her she would not be able to raise money and win the election.

“Those people were wrong, and I want every young woman of color out there to know that they have the power—and support—to run for office and win,” Omar said.

Omar’s platform includes criminal justice reform, instituting more environmental protections, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and making higher education more accessible. She also wants to enact police reforms, including banning stops for vehicle violations like expired license plate tags and broken taillights. “Instead, we should institute a policy where police car dash cams be used to assign tickets objectively. If such a law were in place, Philando Castile would still be alive,” her platform states. Castile was fatally shot by police officers outside of St. Paul last month after being pulled over for a reportedly broken taillight.

In the past, Omar has helped to ban environmentally harmful containers; pass a city ordinance to allow businesses to extend their hours to accommodate Muslims celebrating Ramadan; and win paid parental leave for City of Minneapolis employees, according to her campaign.

Omar, who was born in Somalia, immigrated to the United States after her family escaped a civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years.

Her official bio says that her interest in politics began as a 14-year-old student who acted as an interpreter for her grandfather at local DFL caucuses.

“It was a free process and it wasn’t like the one he was exposed to,” Omar told the Guardian earlier this year. “In America you could be involved in a political party and you didn’t have to be a member of a specific class.”

Omar went on to earn degrees in business administration, political science, and international studies and complete a policy fellowship at University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Her professional experience includes working as a community health educator at the University of Minnesota and as a senior policy aid for Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson.

In the weeks leading up to her win, Omar won the public endorsements of former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several local activists and University of Minnesota students.

“From a refugee camp to the State Capitol with intelligence and insight,” Rybak told the Star-Tribune. “This is a wonderful story to tell as Americans, and a great source of pride for the state of Minnesota’s open arms.”

Analysis Violence

Conspiracy of Indifference: Press and Police Ignore Violence Against Native Women

Mary Annette Pember

In Indian country, cases of the missing and murdered are often not covered by the media. They grow cold and are forgotten.

This piece, the fourth and final installment, was cross-posted from Indian Country Today with permission as part of a ​joint series​ about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

The “missing white woman syndrome,” explains the lack of media attention for missing Native women, according to Makoons Miller Tanner of Duluth. “Pretty, young, middle class white women make good victims versus Native women who may have criminal pasts,” noted Miller Tanner, who maintains the Justice for Native Women blog.

In Indian country, cases of the missing and murdered are often not covered by the media. They grow cold and are forgotten.

Sarah Deer, professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law who has an extensive history of working to end violence against Native women, described the lack of data and attention to missing and murdered Native women as a conspiracy of indifference on the part of the U.S. government and law enforcement. “If we had the funding to search and assess our data, I think we would find that we in the U.S. have absolutely similar numbers to Canada in terms of missing and murdered women,” she said.

(Read more about the U.S. government and law enforcement’s responses to the violence against Native women in the second and third installments of this series, here and here.)

According to a 2015 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, nearly 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. In 2014, 11 indigenous women went missing. Advocates claim that the actual number is much higher.

Deer noted that the United States and Canada have similar social and economic dynamics affecting Indigenous women such as histories of boarding schools and migration to urban settings. “We share a parallel trauma,” she noted. “Terrible things happen to our women, but it never seems to reach a priority among law enforcement. Our communities must empower themselves at the grassroots level to make change, otherwise it will never happen.”

Change is beginning to come, and as Deer noted, it is at the grassroots level. There are numerous ad hoc efforts to keep databases of missing and murdered Native women, as well as a growing number of social media sites dedicated to spreading the word about missing girls and women in Indian country.

The Save Wiyabi Project (“Wiyabi” is Assiniboine for “women”), the Justice for Native Women blog, and the Sing Our Rivers Red project are examples of such groups.

Lauren Chief Elk and Laura Madison created a map as part of the Save Wiyabi Project to help track missing and murdered women. “This was created by Indigenous women for Indigenous women, because our governments and media erase the large scale violence against us,“ according to a statement explaining the site.

According to Chief Elk, Save Wiyabi has verified 1,050 violent incidents involving Indigenous women, those who have disappeared, been murdered, or been assaulted. “We also found that many of the tribal law enforcement agencies we contacted basically have no established procedures at all for collecting missing person’s reports,” she said.

“There seems to be a very cavalier attitude about missing women even among our own people.”

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