In a speech that I consider to be one of the most powerful and most compassionate speeches that any Somali leader has delivered for a long time, Somalia's new President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud has spoken candidly and explicitly about some of the most serious challenges that his government faces and called for the nation's collective and urgent attention to tackle these issues in order to restore the dignity of the Somali people and the country's statehood.
He lamented that Somalia has become a brand name for terrorism, piracy, refugees and failure as a state.
"We know that terrorist actions committed by some of our people may only be a small fraction of international terrorism but we unfortunately carry the name. We are much better than to be called terrorists, better than be branded as pirates, better than having the largest refugee camps in the world and better than being known as the most failed state in the world."
The president talked about how the Somali people have lost their pride in their identity as one can see wealthy businesspeople running away from their homeland to settle in foreign countries just to obtain foreign passports. He described this as the lowest one can reach when someone views his nationality as a shame.
He spoke about the ubiquitous and notorious checkpoints locally known as Isbaaro which have siphoned off the people's meager incomes and sapped their strength for survival and hope.
One of the most critical issues, however, that the President raised and caught my attention was the topic of violence against women and particularly rape. And I am sure he inadvertently forgot to mention that Somalia has also become known as "the worst place to be a woman in the world" among the notorious names he listed.
The most disheartening and saddening example that he told was the tragic story of an elderly woman who was gang-raped by young men in full view of her husband. The couple had just finished their dinner and performed their evening prayers together when criminal gangs stormed their little home and committed their heinous crime. The president said he couldn't sleep several nights after he heard that tragedy and he understandably sounded helpless and wanted to convey the enormity of the crime and the indignity and humiliation that the Somali people in general and Somali women in particular are subjected to on daily basis.
He admitted that rape was the ugliest manifestation of the state of insecurity that the country has descended to over the past 20 years, reminding the regional governors that he was addressing prior to his departure on 26th November 2012 on a tour of neighboring countries that it was their responsibility and that of the Somali people with them to extricate the country from this ugliness.
President Mahmoud sent a strong message against rape by announcing that his government was working on enacting new laws that would call for death penalty for rapists. As commendable as this step maybe for challenging a crime whose perpetrators have until now gone away with impunity, another more effective way to punish and shame such immoral men may be to snip their male organs in public places, thus denying them the ability to commit such crimes in future and making them live with this constant reminder for the rest of their lives.
Anyone who thinks this may be a harsh has just to remember how many mothers, sisters, wives or daughters that such measure could safeguard from being subjected to one of the most despicable crimes and live-long scars that one can endure.
In a similar development, Somaliland's Minister of Labor and Social Affairs launched an awareness week against the rape of women and young boys in Hargeisa. Talking to the press on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25th November 2012, Mahmoud Ahmed Garaad said that the general hospital of Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, receives almost one case of rape every day. Among the shocking statistics he disclosed was that recorded figures of rape cases have increased in 2012 from what they were in 2011. He pointed out that over the last six months of 2012 alone, Hargeisa Hospital has treated 147 victims of rape of whom 127 were women and 20 were boys as young as 12 years of age. This doesn't include other violence against women whether physical or mental as well as the tradition-driven abuse of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that forces women to sexual bondage.
What makes this crime even worse in the Somali society as I mentioned in a previous article and also reiterated by President Mahmoud of Somalia is the staunch defense that the rapists get from the community who shield them against any legal persecution due to tribal loyalties. This does not only encourage the continuity of rape but it also makes Somali women feel worthless and deprives them of living in dignity and denies them their rights as citizens. But the irony is that despite being victims to such inhuman treatment, Somali women, both inside the country and overseas, have proven to be the pillars without which the Somali people could not have survived through natural and man-made catastrophes over more than 20 years as I highlighted in previous articles such as The better half and Somaliland Women as oppressed breadwinners and peacemakers and Dumarka Soomaaliyeed Waa Dheemanta Lagu Babaaday.
The president has spoken about the security and social obstacles that hamper the country's return to normalcy and the restoration of the people's dignity. And at the top of these is the inhuman treatment of women. Therefore, with the nightmare of Al Shabab who kept women in both physical and mental darkness on the wane, one wonders if anyone can empathize with the President's agony of helplessness and truly hear his appeal for action and change.
Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.