Publications & reports

Queens without crowns

Somaliland women’s changing roles and peace building

The research project on the situation of the women in war-torn Somaliland helps us see the situation of women in many complex conflict scenarios of today. It touches vital values and principles in the international peace and development discourse. Also available in French.

Publication details
Amina Mohamoud Warsame


As I am reading this brief report on the changing roles of women in Somaliland, three important aspects come to my mind. They are closely linked to each other and overall related to the issue of how we can learn from the specific situation and apply it in a more general context.

– What is the specific social, political and economic context of Somaliland? – Why is this book on the situation of women in a pastoralist society of relevance to others than the women of Somaliland? –Why are the findings in this book of importance to the Life & Peace Institute (LPI) as a peace research institute, and to the wider development constituency as well? What is it that we can learn?

At the beginning of the 1990s “Somalia” came to be a synonym for anarchy and chaos, a disastrous mixture of natural and manmade catastrophe, an unprecedented breakdown of the so-called modern state. Starting as a civil war against a severely corrupt dictator, Siad Barre, the fighting soon degenerated into a vicious war where the conquerors turned on each other in the fight for power. Somalia became the prototype for the “new” type of war that the world community would see erupt at an alarming rate, i.e. civil wars led by warlords whose guiding force would be greed and power. This type of war is taking place inside the countries, pitting clans, tribes, families against each other, disrupts the very social fabric of the communities; and deliberately targets the civilian population, thus producing enormous refugee movements with a majority of women and children. In this situation the women have been primarily victims, but they have also emerged as a tremendous human resource, often engaging themselves in peace and development work on the local levels.

Little has it been noticed and discussed the fact that Somalia already in 1991 split up and developed in two different directions. The South went down the slope to full-scale “war-lordism”, whereas, in isolation, virtually without help from the international community, the former north-west region of Somalia, the Somaliland Republic, chose another way. By relying on its own cultural and traditional resources – in particular the institution of the elders – in how to solve its problems and conflicts, how to rebuild its society and govern the people, Somaliland managed to a large extent to escape the worst excesses of anarchy, violence and corruption that have over the years plagued the rest of Somalia. Through the remarkable so called Boroma peace process, the elders of all the clans agreed to stay out of the power-struggle for a government in Mogadishu and formed a separate country the Republic of Somaliland. Although unacknowledged by the international community yet, this peace process is remarkable also in the way that it is a participatory process, a “bottom-up process” that started at local levels in the councils of clan elders and ended in Boroma where all clans were represented. However, although the Boroma process is supported by most people in Somaliland, it has a clear weakness in that it excluded half the population – the women – from direct participation. Although community based and participatory, the process was an exclusively male business, and the women of Somaliland were not included. As far as I know, the lack of women participating in the decision making process for the country has never been seen as an issue worth discussing officially. However, as this report points out, unofficially among the women, there is an ongoing discussion.

Nevertheless the women in Somaliland, like women in many other war and conflict ridden societies, have had to shoulder many new and unaccustomed burdens outside their traditional role in the family and household. The war has drastically changed society, as many men were killed or have left the country for exile. Young boys were sent abroad for schools or other means of making a living. Left are the old, the women and the young children. In the case of Somaliland men’s increased and widespread use of the drug qat has added to the complexity of the situation.

Although there are no reliable statistics for Somaliland there are estimates that today the women constitute the majority of the population, or around 60%. The women are trying by all means to make ends meet through various income-generating activities. They are also organizing themselves as best they can in local Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and active networking. The women organize for economic survival, education, health and cleaning up the communities and they are today a very noticeable and vital part of the economic backbone of Somaliland. High on their agenda is also the issue of how to work for peace. However, the fact that they are effectively barred from participating in decision making and therefore also lacking experience of how to participate – as well as other cultural bias – constitute severe obstacles for them in their struggle. Nevertheless, as also this book points out, there is a strong awareness among the women of the important contribution that they are making to society and that it is just and fair that they should have access to and participate in making decisions that concern them, their families, their communities and country.

The women of Somaliland are not alone in this predicament. According to the UN, women are the world’s most marginalized category of people, being barred from the full participation in all spheres of society including participation in decision making processes and the promotion of their basic human rights. Further, UN statistics show that although women contribute 67% of the world’s working hours, they earn less than 10% of the world’s income. They own less than 1% of the world’s property. They make up 66% of the world’s illiterates, and 86 million girls (twice the number of boys) have no access to primary schooling. 70% of the world’s poor are women.

Thus the situation of the women in Somaliland – although specific and unique in many ways – has relevance, and helps us to see the situation of women in many complex conflict scenarios of today. Equality between men and women is often presented as an issue that western women promote and can indulge in. In conflicting undemocratic societies where human rights are not respected, the most important task is first and foremost identified as working for full human and democratic rights and for peace. When that goal has been reached there will eventually be time for the issue of women’s role and rights in society. However, this reasoning has an inherent flaw, as women’s rights are nothing more than basic human rights.We cannot claim to strive for a democratic and just society and at the same time neglect the rights of 50% of the members of society - the women. And the figure of 50% is far too conservative, as women – more often than men – tend to include the views of the children and the elderly.

This small report on women in Somaliland and their changing roles thus touches on some of the most vital values and principles that are emerging in the international peace and development discourse, in which LPI takes an active role.

The importance of building peace work on a holistic concept of peace, where peace is not seen as a theoretical concept, but seen as closely related to development, and translates itself into working for a democratic society built on equity, justice and peace for all its members, men, women and children alike; a society where emerging conflicts are dealt with in a democratic and non-violent way; and a society where women’s rights are acknowledged as human rights and women are equally included in all participatory processes. As the UN Security Council stated on 8March 2000: “Peace is inextricably linked with equality between men and women.”

The work for peace needs to be a broadly conceived process and involve the entire society. A true bottom up process means that much work for peace must take place in the communities. To assure genuine ownership of the peace processes by the people in the communities, they should be the ones to define the needs and the key issues to be addressed, as well as the processes on how to address them. This should be so as they are the ones who will have to live with the solutions.

The process that led to this report was a genuine community-based approach. It was conceived and started by women from all walks of life in Somaliland; they determined what research was needed, what issues and questions needed to be studied. A Somali women’s research organization carried out the research i.e. collected and analysed data and subsequently made recommendations.The study focus on the roles of women, but in order to make the picture complete, it equally included the views of men. True to their culture and religion, the women incorporated into their inquiry Islamic values and Islamic rights fo women and looked for answers that are appropriate for them as women of Islam.

Women all over the world in conflict societies are – in spite of tremendous hardship – involved in development work and increasingly emerging as peacemakers and peace workers.There is a need to acknowledge the roles that they are already playing and to enable them to become more visible, to listen to them and to consult with them, not least to be able to give them the support and training that they themselves would find useful.

For the LPI and any other international actor supporting a process from a culture of war to a culture of peace and development, it should then be vital to listen to the voices of the people in the conflict – not least the women – how they define the situation and what recommendations they make.

This report is a first step along these lines, and will be useful as a basis for further discussion and analysis for the people of Somaliland, but also in a wider context where it can serve as a point of departure for new and important research on how to approach peace work in today’s war and conflict situations. Equally important, this report can be used as a tool for the peace and development community in their efforts to support positive developments in Somaliland or other post-conflict societies. It is a first and healthy move in the right direction, and will hopefully serve as a basis for further initiatives of the same nature.

Susanne Thurfjell Senior Programme Officer Life & Peace Institute, Uppsala June 2002