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The rape of Somalia's women is being ignored

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The twice-widowed mother of four left her children at their makeshift hut in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Mogadishu to seek dry food aid in a neighbouring camp

Like so many in the Horn of Africa, Nadifa needed food. The twice-widowed mother of four left her children at their makeshift hut in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Mogadishu to seek dry food aid in a neighbouring camp. After waiting hours, she returned home with nothing. She found a gunman inside her home, raping her 11-year-old daughter. She screamed for help, trying to pull him off the child while protecting her other children. Neighbours stood by as the militia abducted Nadifa. In an abandoned building, with a hood over her head, she was pistol-whipped, kicked, punched, and scorched with burning plastic.

For sexual predators, famine and the resulting vulnerability equals opportunity, even in refugee camps with the heavy presence of international aid organisations and the United Nations. A recent UN assessment in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp indicates that the majority of families in the camp are female-headed households, and reported cases of rape have quadrupled with the famine.

This points to the unbearable reality for women within Somalia. The crisis in the Horn of Africa is, in many ways, a women's famine. Women frequently face the daily battle for survival without husbands or male providers, who have died, left with the herds or simply abandoned their families. Women travel hundreds of kilometres with their children. They make do in al-Shabaab controlled camps, facing alone what aid workers euphemistically describe as "the extreme vulnerability of displacement and loss of livelihoods".

Just prior to the news of the famine, the Guardian named Somalia one of five "worst places in the world for women". Somali women have long faced a culture of severe oppression, along with 20 years of conflict. IDP camps are ruled by al-Shabaab, a militant terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, which controls 90% of south and central Somalia. Impunity is absolute. If a victim of rape dares to complain, she is accused of promiscuity or "speaking against the brotherhood", both crimes punishable by beheading or stoning.

While hundreds of millions of aid dollars pour through big agencies providing food, water, and health services, Somalia's dramatically escalating sexual violence is going largely ignored. This is in part because it is so difficult for large foreign-aid organisations to access the women who most need it: those living in al-Shabaab-controlled IDP camps.

Women like Nadifa face their attackers daily. They are afraid to leave their huts. How likely are these female heads-of-household to aggressively seek water, food and medical aid for their kids? These are no-win choices with a life-or-death impact on the children in their care.

Solutions can be found outside the traditional big-aid model. In collaboration with international aid experts Prism Partnerships, in early July, grassroots Somali leader Fartun Adan officially opened Sister Somalia, a rape crisis centre inside Mogadishu's government-controlled safe zone, building on word-of-mouth networks. Adan has developed a malleable direct-aid structure informed by local context, catering to victims' specific needs. It's risk-laden, but for Adan, whose husband was murdered in 1996 for his human rights work, it's worth it.

Nadifa met Adan's outreach counsellors in her camp. Early the next morning, Nadifa made the long walk into Mogadishu to the centre. After a meal and counselling, Adan's team set out to relocate Nadifa's family to a one-bedroom apartment in government-controlled Mogadishu.

In the context of famine, sexual violence is being de-prioritised as primarily a psychosocial issue. This is a deadly miscalculation. We cannot allow the crisis in Somalia to relegate women's security to an optional extra. As sexual predators run rampant over famine-affected ground, food security and women's security become inextricably linked. It is high time we follow the lead of Somali grassroots leaders like Adan, assuring our assistance holds women's security as not only possible, but fundamental.

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