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End of the ‘Culture of Silence’ : Somalia Gets its First Forensic Lab to Handle Cases of Rape and Gender-based Violence

Rape and sexual assault are pervasive in Somalia, where decades of conflict have created persistent instability and crippled the institutions meant to uphold the law

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The newly opened Puntland Forensic Center is funded by the Swedish government and supported by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) (VOA)
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Somalia, September 16, 2017 : A new forensic lab launched in central Somalia could transform how the Puntland state government handles cases of rape and gender-based violence, and possibly create a model for the rest of the country to follow.

The Puntland Forensic Center, funded by the Swedish government and supported by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), was opened September 6. It brings advanced DNA testing capabilities to a country still lacking in paved roads and reliable electricity.

The lab opened less than a year after Puntland enacted its Sexual Offenses Act, the first law in Somalia to criminalize sexual offenses and impose harsh penalties, including jail time, fines and public lashing, on the perpetrators.

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The Puntland Forensic Center, funded by the Swedish government and supported by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), was opened September 6 in central Somalia. (VOA)

The lab was designed to provide critical scientific evidence to the police and officials investigating and prosecuting crimes under this new law.

“As we were helping [the Puntland government] develop that piece of legislation, the question came of, ‘How do we enforce that legislation when it is finally approved?'” said Nikolai Botev, UNFPA’s Somalia representative.

“This is when the realization came that there are actually no forensic facilities within Somalia.”

Culture of silence

Rape and sexual assault are pervasive in Somalia, where decades of conflict have created persistent instability and crippled the institutions meant to uphold the law.

Thirty-year-old Fatima was collecting firewood outside her family’s home in a camp for displaced people in Puntland when she was attacked by three strangers. The men gang-raped her so violently that it caused Fatima, who was pregnant, to miscarry.

“After I came home, I started to bleed the next night. After three to four days, I lost my four-month-old baby,” Fatima told VOA in an interview at a women’s health clinic in Garowe.

Like many women in this conservative country, Fatima preferred to stay silent rather than endure the stigma of her community. The blame and shame survivors face deters many women from reporting rapes and assaults, creating a culture of silence.

“I was shy and said to myself, ‘Don’t tell your story to anyone because it is shameful,'” Fatima said. She was dressed in a full black niqab that revealed nothing but her eyes through a small slit.

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Fatima, who was gang-raped by three strangers outside her family’s home in a camp for displaced people in Puntland, waits at a women’s health clinic in Garowe. (VOA)

Although statistics on the numbers of sexual crimes are largely unavailable, Somalia has been ranked as one of the worst countries to be a woman, and stories like Fatima’s are alarmingly common.

UNFPA says reports of rape and sexual assault have increased this year, after a devastating drought pushed women like Fatima into displacement camps where they become even more vulnerable.

“We’re seeing a significant increase of sexual violence, particularly targeting internally displaced people,” Botev said. “The whole idea of the forensic center was born out of a bigger idea of how to address gender-based violence, sexual violence in the context of Somalia.”

A broken system

Somalia’s government, even at the state level, has yet to recover from decades of war. Many Somali women do not bother to report crimes because they lack faith that the system can, or wants to, help them get justice.

Officer Kis Shamis Kabdi Bile stands out in her bright orange sneakers, blue hijab and mirrored sunglasses. As the only woman in Garowe’s Criminal Investigation Division, she handles every case of rape and gender-based violence because, she says, most male officers don’t even consider them to be crimes.

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Officer Kis Shamis Kabdi Bile is the only woman in Garowe’s Criminal Investigation Division in Somalia.(VOA)

“There are some police officers who say rape is not a big deal and consider it a minor thing,” she told VOA in an interview at the police station. “They say that it is nothing new.”

Bile hasn’t been paid in over a year, and conducts her investigations on foot, as the police department doesn’t have a car. She says the police need resources and specialized training in how to handle sexual crimes.

Many of Bile’s cases are taken over by community elders, who settle disputes through Somalia’s traditional herr system. Often the rapist’s family pays a fine of camels or goats to the survivor’s family, or the survivors are forced to marry their attackers.

It’s frustrating, Bile said. “As you are in the middle of the case, those elders will come and say, ‘We are going to negotiate before you finish the case.'”

During our interview, a young girl, no older than 15, came to plead for Bile’s help. The male police officer assigned to her rape case was insisting she lacked the evidence to go to court, she said, and was encouraging her to resolve her case through the community elders. Bile called the officer in for a strong scolding, and then took over the case.

Changing times

There are promising signs that Puntland’s efforts are already helping more rape survivors to hold their attackers accountable.

Data from Puntland’s attorney general shows that of the 108 rapes reported in Puntland in 2016, only 14, or 12 percent, resulted in convictions. Almost a third were dropped due to lack of evidence.

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Map of Puntland

But since the Sexual Offenses Act was implemented this year, the conviction rate has risen to 27 percent, while the number of cases thrown out for insufficient evidence has dropped to 21 percent.

The trend is encouraging to local politicians, who hope the forensic laboratory will build upon the law’s early success by providing authorities with stronger evidence in a shorter time so they can investigate and prosecute more cases that will stand up in a court of law.

“We used to send DNA from here to Nairobi or from here to South Africa,” said Salah Habib Haaji Hama, Puntland’s Minister of Justice and Religious Affairs. “So those restraints now are easy. We can manage this and get answers within a timely period. Within hours, within minutes, when we used to have days, sometimes months, to receive those.”

An important component to the lab’s success is providing education, both to the survivors and the wider community, about how DNA testing works and why it’s so important.

“There’s a limited time that they have to report or the results of the lab will not be successful. So we will try to educate them,” said Maryan Ahmed Ali, Puntland’s Minister of Women. “What is the time limit? What do they have to do? Do they have to take a shower? Do they have to change or wash their clothes?”

ALSO READ What Gives Husbands The Licence to Rape? Decoding Marital Rape in the Indian Legal Scenario

Understanding the implications of DNA testing could deter potential attackers from committing crimes for fear of being caught. It could also be a game changer for women like Fatima, who said she didn’t report the crime because she didn’t know her attackers’ names.

“Who am I going to accuse? I can only accuse a person I know. I can’t catch someone who I only saw in the jungle. I can barely remember the faces,” she said.

A multitude of challenges, including poor infrastructure, potential security threats and lack of qualified technicians, could impede the lab’s success, said UNFPA’s Botev. Somalia lacks advanced universities and hospitals, so the technicians overseeing the facility all studied abroad. They hope to make the lab a training ground for aspiring Somali scientists.

But the greater hope is that more successful convictions will foster increased confidence in Puntland’s new system, and encourage more women to report. Ultimately, Ali said, this will help reduce the social stigma and break the culture of silence surrounding rape and sexual assault.

“There will not be a stigma. There will not be a discussion about who did this, who did the crime, who did the rape. So it’s a big encouragement,” Ali said. (VOA)

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India Can Really Take An Ostrich Approach To The Condition Of Women?

A total of 548 global experts on women’s issues , 43 of them from India

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BJP Leader Asks Parents Of A Rape Victim To Express Gratitude To Them
Can India Really Take An Ostrich Approach To The Condition Of Women?. Flickr

-By Deepa Gahlot

You read with a mixture of alarm and scepticism, the poll report by the London-based Thomson Reuters Foundation that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women, beating Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

According to reports, a total of 548 global experts on women’s issues — 43 of them from India — were asked about risks faced by women in six areas: healthcare, access to economic resources and discrimination, customary practices, sexual violence, nonsexual violence, and human trafficking. And shockingly, India comes out as the worst!

We see women progressing in every field in India, but, there is also the increasing violence against women and young girls reported every day; not long ago, female tourists felt safe in India; but now, women travelling solo are constantly targeted. Everyday there are reports of the rapes and murders of minor girls, often accompanied by unimaginable torture and mutilation.

There has been outrage in India, and also holes punctured in the survey that has such a small number of respondents, but can we really take an ostrich approach to the condition of women? Even as education and healthcare improve for women — at least in metro cities — the contempt for women is socially and culturally ingrained in the Indian psyche. In a city like Mumbai considered progressive and relatively safe for women, the girl child is unwanted even by many educated and wealthy families. In spite of laws being in place, female foeticide and infanticide is rampant, to the extent that there are large territories where there are no girl children and brides for the men have to be ‘imported’ from other states.  As dowry murders and rapes rise, the more unwanted the girl child becomes.  The fact is that India’s gender ratio is deplorable.

And if the male child is valued over the girl child, he grows up believing that he is special and if he is thwarted in any way, he can resort to violence. In spite of education and exposure to progressive ideas, in the case of rape or sexual violence, the tendency to blame and shame the victim persists.

To give just one small example, in the West, accusations of sexual harassment resulted in united shunning of a man as powerful as Harvey Weinstein and many others in the wake of the #MeToo movement, that helped many women speak out about their experiences.

In India, Malayalam actor Dileep, who has been accused in the abduction and rape of an actress, and was boycotted by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), was recently reinstated. This caused shock and dismay among women in the film industry.

A statement by a group of over 150 women film practitioners says it like it is, “A body that is meant to represent artistes of the Malayalam movie industry showed complete disregard for its own member who is the victim of this gross crime. Even before the case has reached its conclusion, AMMA has chosen to validate a person accused of a very serious crime against a colleague. We condemn this cavalier attitude by artistes against women artistes who are working alongside them. There is misogyny and gender discrimination embedded in this action.

“We admired and supported the Women in Cinema Collective that was formed by women film artistes in Kerala in the aftermath of the abduction and molestation of a colleague, a top star in the industry. We applaud the WCC members who have walked out of AMMA to protest the chairman’s invitation to reinstate the accused. We pledge our continued support to the Women in Cinema Collective who are blazing a trail to battle sexism in the film industry.

“Cinema is an art form that can challenge deeply entrenched violence and discrimination in society. It is distressing to see an industry that stands amongst the best in the country and has even made a mark in world cinema choose to shy away from using their position and their medium responsibly at this important moment. Today, women form a significant part of the film and media industries, we reject any attempt at silencing us and making us invisible.”

The Gujarat elections have brought the BJP and the Congress in close contest with each other.
Indian women. VOA

The preference for male children has had some unexpected ramifications. In a working paper published by the American non-profit, National Bureau of Economic Research, by Northwestern University’s Seema Jayachandran and Harvard University’s Rohini Pande (quoted in Quartz Media), finds that stunting in Indian children could also be blamed on the cultural preference for sons.

“In India, on average, the first child — if he is a son — doesn’t suffer from stunting. But, if the first — and so the eldest — child of the family is a girl, she suffers from a height deficit. And, then, if the second child is a boy, and hence the eldest son of the family, he will not be stunted. This happens because of an unequal allocation of resources to the first child”.

According to the report, “When Jayachandran and Pande compared India and Africa results through this lens, they found that the Indian first and eldest son tends to be taller than an African firstborn. If the eldest child of the family is a girl, and a son is born next, the son will still be taller in India than Africa. For girls, however, the India-Africa height deficit is large. It is the largest for daughters with no older brothers, probably because repeated attempts to have a son takes a beating on the growth of the girls.”

Also read: Has Legal Framework Turned a Blind Eye towards Under-representation of Women in Indian Politics?

In spite of all the Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao rhetoric, the required shift in the male-centric attitude towards a more egalitarian one is simply not happening; or, it is a case of one step forward, two steps backward. The Thomson Reuters Foundation report may be unfair and skewed, but being known as the rape capital of the world does nothing to improve the image of India in the world or even in its own eyes. (IANS)