Thursday March 21, 2019

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)

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)

Next Story

“We Can Make Difference By Rendering Services To The Women And Children” All-female Legal Group Fights In Sierra Leone

Most of the time the children, the women, are not aware of the signs and symptoms. They’re not aware of anything until it had fully happened, so the conversation has to start from the bottom up.”

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Fatmata Sorie, president of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS), is pictured in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Feb. 7, 2019. Pixabay

In Sierra Leone, cases involving the abuse of women have rarely been prosecuted. Spousal abusers, child abusers and even rapists have, too often, walked free.

A group of lawyers and judges — all of them female — has decided to take action to change that.

“We’ve seen a lot of issues affecting our women and girls in our society, and we believe that, with the expertise that we have, we can make a difference by rendering services to the women and children who need it most,” said Fatmata Sorie, an attorney and president of the group Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social justice (LAWYERS).

The group was founded 22 years ago and offers pro bono legal work to those in need. One of the founding members was Patricia Kabbah, a former first lady of Sierra Leone and a lawyer herself.

LAWYERS has about 50 members, and Sorie says they discourage out-of-court settlements in rape cases, preferring to prosecute attackers to the full extent of the law. They also prosecute accessories to the crime. The group conducts outreach to families, encouraging people to break their silence about sexual violence.

FILE - A five-year-old girl poses with her doll as she sits in her wheelchair in the courtyard of the Aberdeen Women's Center, one year after a sexual assault that her family says left her paralyzed, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Feb. 7, 2019.
A five-year-old girl poses with her doll as she sits in her wheelchair in the courtyard of the Aberdeen Women’s Center, one year after a sexual assault that her family says left her paralyzed, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Feb. 7, 2019. VOA

“We also start within our homes because, in most homes, we don’t sit down as parents, as families, to discuss issues,” she said. “So most of the time the children, the women, are not aware of the signs and symptoms. They’re not aware of anything until it had fully happened, so the conversation has to start from the bottom up.”

In an unprecedented move, President Julius Maada Bio in February declared rape and sexual violence a national emergency. The country had more than 8,500 reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence last year, but observers believe thousands of additional cases go unreported.

According to the Rainbo Initiative, a Sierra Leonean organization that helps survivors of gender-based violence, 93 percent of victims treated are younger than 17 years of age, and 24 percent are younger than 11.

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The president also created a special police division to handle rape cases. But Sorie believes there is more work to be done. Pixabay

The presidential declaration is already having an effect.

“We believe the most prominent impact so far is that we will have more numbers coming out because people feel more comfortable coming up to report these cases,” Sorie said. “And we also have a situation where the regulations are passed based on the declaration that was made by the president. The process for prosecuting sexual penetration and rape cases would be much shorter based on the instruction and the directives.”

 

Also Read:National Award Winning Filmmaker Rima Das Roots for More Female Directors

The president also created a special police division to handle rape cases. But Sorie believes there is more work to be done. She would like to see the maximum penalty for rape increased to life in prison from the current limit of 15 years and wants stronger witness-protection programs. She also said the nation needs additional medical facilities to treat rape victims and forensics labs to test DNA samples.

“We need to keep the fight going and to curb this menace within our society,” she said. (VOA)