Grass-roots ‘social workers’ urge new attitudes to protecting Somali children
By Mike Pflanz
BOSSASO, Puntland, 7 December 2011 – It was, for most people here, a typical morning. Women patched plastic sheeting covering their homes. Young boys led goats to fresh pasture. Pots on wood fires boiled water for tea.
But in the gloom of one of those small huts of branches and rags, a terrified nine-year-old girl named Istahil Galow was tied up with her dress above her waist as an older woman nearby prepared a pair of sharpened scissors.
Istahil’s mother stood watching proudly as tears streamed down her daughter’s face. Like almost every girl in Somalia, like her mother and her grandmother before her, she was to be "circumcised".
But just before the procedure began, Istahil’s aunt – her mother’s sister – burst in and begged everyone to wait and to talk, and untied her niece.
The aunt, Fatuma Ahmed, is one of a growing number of advocates speaking out for the first time against the widespread practice also known as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
“Istahil’s mother was not happy with me,” Fatuma says. “But slowly, over three days, we talked of the hazards, the pain, the problems in the future.
“Eventually, she understood, and she agreed not to do this to her daughter.”
FGM/C, inflicted on a staggering 98% of Somali girls often as young as Istahil, is one of a raft of abuses, exploitation and violence suffered by children in this country now entering its third decade with no nationally effective government.
That lack of authority means there is little state sanction or prosecution for people who harm children. It has entrenched the poverty that prompts desperate decisions.
And it has sparked a widespread breakdown of social norms as sustained violence forces families to flee the homes they have lived in for generations and to seek sanctuary in places where they are strangers.
To fill that vacuum, and to ensure that children and parents have somewhere to turn for advice and help, a small army of community workers is now out on the streets, supported by UNICEF and its partner organisations in Somalia.
“There is rape, there is FGM, there is hazardous and exploitative work, there is neglect of children, including disabled children,” said Asad Osman Abdi, a Child Protection Advocate with Tadamun Social Society (TASS), which works with UNICEF in Bossaso, the main city in Somalia’s northeastern Puntland region.
“Before we started this work, no-one used to speak about any of these issues. Everything was swept under the carpet, even among friends, even in families.”
That, today, is changing. In a stiflingly hot shelter walled with old mattresses and rusting metal, 50 women have gathered, many with their youngest children on their backs.
This is the latest round of public meetings with TASS and the Child Protection Committee here in Banadir camp, one of many villages of temporary homes dotted around Bossaso for people who have fled violence elsewhere in Somalia.
Priorities for action are agreed. Information about how to refer concerns to town authorities, the police or doctors is discussed. Recently-arrived families are welcomed.
It was this kind of public meeting that eventually led to Mariam Farah’s 10-year-old son, Abdirahim, returning to his family home after three years of living rough on Bossaso’s streets.
“There were some problems at home before I ran away,” said Abdirahim later, as he helped his mother prepare lunch outside their house nearby.
“But these people on the Committee came to me, they said they had spoken to my mother and she had promised everything would be ok now if I went home.
“They were right. I am happy to be off the streets and with my mum, and I am even going to school again now.”
At another of the community gatherings, Laylo Abdiaziz, 17, heard how the Child Protection Committee was arranging meetings with potential employers to agree contracts for young women to work as domestic staff in houses in town.
She had had such a job before. But her employers refused to pay her for six months.
When she finally argued back, demanding what she was owed, she was attacked with a broken bottle that left her with two permanent four-inch scars across her face.
“After that, I was discouraged from ever looking for this work again,” she said.
But the contracts guarantee employees regular payments and days off, with the threat of police action if terms are breached, and Laylo said she is now job-seeking again.
Similar efforts to entrench child protection in daily lives are happening across northern Somalia. In Somaliland, the region neighbouring Puntland, another Somali organisation, CCBRS, is supporting Child Protection Committees.
Under the shade of widespread branches of a tree on the outskirts of New Gabily, an hour’s drive north of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, Sadiq Ismael said the committee’s work there was succeeding, but there were still challenges.
“Sometimes, people tell us these are new ideas which have been brought from outside and are not our culture,” he said.
“To that we say, how can a culture which harms its children be a good one? We just need to continue trying to change attitudes. It will happen, although it will take time.”