Mogadishu is a living hell for women struggling to feed their children amid war, drought, famine and utter devastation. No matter how hard I try to describe the situation, you could never imagine the reality on the ground. Indeed, nothing could have prepared me for the destitution and destruction that I saw when I returned to Somalia’s capital last year.
Somalia is often described as the world’s original failed state – a lawless country that has been engulfed in conflict for more than 20 years. But as I work with women on the ground, I find that one of the greatest risk to women’s lives is not war, but birth. One of the most dangerous things a woman in Somalia can do is to become pregnant. When she does, her chances of survival drop considerably due to the nonexistent antenatal care, nonexistent medical supplies, the extraordinarily poor healthcare available and the lack of infrastructure. A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from maternal causes here is 1 in 14. This is one of the highest rates in the world, second only to Afghanistan. When a woman is due to give birth, she just waits for delivery, praying she doesn’t die in the process.
Add to this the constant risk of getting shot or raped, as well as the ubiquitous practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) – something 95% of girls aged 4 to 11 face – make women’s lives in Somalia almost unlivable.
Fortunately, however, we’re making progress – albeit one step at a time. The opening of the recent women’s centre in Mogadishu, as well as the frequent radio broadcast programmes on women’s issues, help raise the subject of FGM and its dangers to a national audience. We find that the more women and men are educated about FGM and the difficulties it causes during labour and its contribution to the high maternal death rates; as well as the religious rulings against it, the more people are responding positively. With every mother that says no to FGM, with every wife-seeking husband that says no to FGM, we’re making progress.
At the women’s centre, we try to provide women and young girls with sustainable skills and training, which we hope will allow them to better their lives and to overcome their current situations. In addition to this, we are opening a new, larger women’s centre in the next few weeks, in which we hope to provide basic education, further vocational courses and counselling services. We also plan to use parts of the new centre as an emergency shelter for women who have been abused and have nowhere else to go.
However, the difficult security situation in the country continues to threaten this painstaking progress. Currently, around 1.4 million people, mostly women and children, are displaced within Somalia after being forced to flee their homes. Many young girls and women are at risk of rape every minute of every day. I’ve seen girls as young as 5 who had been raped; the inability to enforce law in several areas allows for savages to kill and rape with impunity.
I urge the international community not to forget the people of Somalia, especially the disproportionately affected women and children, because they need you. With only little resources and expertise on the ground, I ask my fellow sisters scattered around the world to ask the tough questions, knock on the doors of the powerful and to continue to speak up.
We hope here in Somalia that one day, we too can better speak up for the women and girls of the world.
Maryan Qasim, a medical doctor and a humanitarian who has worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist as well as a university lecturer, scientist and school teacher for over 15 years, living and working in Somalia, Yemen, the Netherlands and Britain. Currently she is the minister for Women’s Development and Family Affairs serving in the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia.