“We’re starting from scratch”: Efforts to entrenching child protection in Somali communities
By Mike Pflanz
BOSSASO, Puntland, 2 March 2012 – Conflict and a lack of strong central government means Somalia’s children are uniquely vulnerable to abuse and violence, aid workers and village leaders said.
But as parts of the country grow increasingly stable, there are calls for legislation to be enacted to protect children from harm, to help them if they are victims, and to prosecute those responsible.
“What matters when you look at child protection is the legal backing of the government,” said Mohamoud Ali Yusuf, head of child protection at UNICEF’s office in Bossaso, the main city in the Puntland region of northeast Somalia.
“Laws should be drawn up that ban female genital mutilation (FGM), for example, or promote important child protection activities.”
In the absence of state-run structures to arrest, investigate and prosecute people who broke the law, society has “broken down”, Mr Yusuf said.
“Institutions that used to protect children have collapsed because of the conflict and lack of central government over the last two decades.
“Every parent has an inborn love for their child, it is true, but beatings at home, corporal punishment at school, exploitative child labour, all of these became the norms.
“Many children also became vulnerable when their parents died or when they fled their home, again because there are no formal structures to protect them from abuse, neglect or exploitation.”
A series of community-based initiatives have been launched, with support from UNICEF, to give children and their parents someone to turn to in case of problems.
In Bossaso’s Banadir camp for internally displaced people who fled fighting elsewhere in Somalia, Mariam Farah is a member of a Child Protection Committee.
She says that she and her colleagues, helped by the Tadamun Social Society, itself supported by UNICEF, are the only ones providing social care for vulnerable children.
“There’s no other organisation, not even the government, who can help us,” she said. “We are working daily with these people, finding cases, trying to stop children being harmed.
“For example with FGM, we are helping maybe one or two girls a week. If there is no government supporting us, and if these international organisations leave, how will we continue to help these girls?”
UNICEF and others are increasing efforts to encourage authorities to build child protection into their new legal systems.
“In many ways we’re starting from scratch,” said Mr Yusuf. “In the absence of strong government it was important for us to start our work at community level.
“But as the programme expands, nowadays our focus is more on trying to establish a strong linkage between government level, state level and those ongoing community level interventions.
“There seems to be a priority among authorities and donors on what they call life-saving programmes, clean water or good hospitals. Of course these are needed, but we argue child protection is as important.
“That’s why we’re focusing more on the government to get their support.”
And there are signs which give hope. Abdihafid Ali Yusuf is the Governor of Bari region in Puntland, in which Bossaso is the largest town.
At an event in his office compound where religious leaders gathered to declare their opposition to FGM, he talked of government efforts to enact laws banning the practice.
“Political support has a very important effect,” he said in an interview.
“The commitment of the government will be enhanced and strengthened when they join with the communities to focus on this, it will make a big difference to community-level advocates to have backing of the government.
“The challenge is that we need a consensus within the communities, and among the religious leaders. Once that’s there, we can make it policy and have it ratified. I cannot say when this will happen, but I think if you look at the trends of the last year, you can see very good progress.”