If I was asked ‘Where is the most dangerous place for a woman to be’, I would say, without hesitating, that it is Somalia.
I would not be exaggerating by saying that Mogadishu is literally a “living hell” for women struggling to feed their children amid war, drought and famine. And let me tell you that no matter how I describe the situation, you will never be prepared for the reality on the ground.
Like everyone else I also used to follow the situation from the news/TV but nothing at all could prepare me for the destitution I saw when I returned to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, last year.
Somalia is a lawless country that has been engulfed in conflict for 20 years. But as I work with women on the ground, I find that the greatest risk to women’s lives is not war but birth. One woman dies for every 100 live births, according to U.N. figures — one of the highest rates in the world.
The most dangerous thing a woman in Somalia can do is to become pregnant. When a woman becomes pregnant her life is 50-50 because there is no antenatal care at all … There are no hospitals, no healthcare, nothing….She just waits for delivery praying she doesn’t die in the process.
The constant risk of getting shot or raped, the lack of education and healthcare and practices like female genital mutilation make women’s lives unbelievably hard.
Many women have lost their husbands in the fighting, meaning they not only have to raise their children on their own but also scrape together an income to feed the family.
Around 1.4 million people, mostly women and children, are displaced within Somalia after being forced to flee their homes. Rape is a risk for many.
Rape was used in the beginning as a weapon of war, but now women who are from a minority or who have been displaced can be raped at any minute. I’ve seen cases of rape as young as five years old. I cannot repeat some of the things I hear and see.
Women’s health is also seriously compromised by the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice, which is carried out on almost all girls aged four to 10, can cause difficulties in labour and is a factor behind the high rates of death in childbirth.
The lack of rule of law, which lets people kill and rape with impunity, and misinterpretation of Islam both compound women’s oppression.
Amidst this hopeless situation, I think one of the ways out is educating our women and children. If women are not educated, I think we cannot build a society. I’ve met so many young girls and women in Mogadishu — you cannot imagine their appetite for education but they do not have that opportunity. For now, all I can help with is provide opportunities for vocational courses in the new centre we opened recently.
As I wake up every day I’m struck by the seeming hopelessness of the situation. There is so much that needs to be done and no matter how hard we work it all just seems like a drop in the ocean.
As I contemplate giving up and returning back to Birmingham, I see the orphans playing in the children centre we opened and I feel so guilty for even considering returning to a safe place when they have nowhere to return to….my resolve is renewed…I cannot give up! Not yet!