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Diary of Somalia
An aid worker recounts the horrors inflicted upon women in Somalia.
By Javed Ameer
Some 1.1 million Somalis are internally displaced and survive on humanitarian assistance in relief camps. Violence against women in these camps is common. though nothing much gets reported. It is shocking what women can endure. Working as the head of programs for Islamic Relief Worldwide in Somalia based in Mogadishu (capital), I have got many a shock in life, some of which can never be wiped off.
This was one of them: Fatima (name changed) walks into my room and sits down. She is silent. She is otherwise a bubbly, full-of-life woman in her mid-fifties, who chucked it all in the United States to come back to Somalia, her country of birth. She wanted to be with the ones who are striving to bring it back from the brink. She started an organization that works with the women who are “violated” and who face violence as a matter of routine.
There are a number of such women just in Mogadishu across so many of the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. The prevailing gun-toting macho culture just adds fuel to this fire.
Today Fatima is unusually quiet. I am quiet too as I can feel the tension. After a few minutes I look up at her. She is crying. She takes her time to get back her composure. She says she has just admitted Lulu (name changed) to a hospital, hoping that she would at least recover physically. Fatima knows that Lulu may not get justice as we understand it. What she hopes is that Lulu may be able to move on.
This was Lulu’s second marriage after she was deserted by her first husband. She sent her three kids from her first marriage to her mother’s place, as her new husband would not have them around. Lulu supported them with whatever she earned. She ran a mobile kiosk of snacks wherever construction was taking place in Mogadishu.
Every evening Lulu returned home with money to find her husband lazing around in a stupor, induced by chewing khat, which is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is addictive and gives a sense of euphoria. He would often demand money for more khat, chewing it late into the night. Whenever he felt like it, he would demand sex. Lulu would helplessly resign to it. Finally, she decided that she had had enough.
One day when her husband demanded money, Lulu refused. Hell broke loose. He beat her up mercilessly. While the blows rained on her, she shouted out that she was finally opting out of the marriage and would get out of the house at dawn.
A woman walking out of marriage is not only rare in Somalia but unacceptable. A woman would need to “buy’ khula (the right of Muslim woman to divorce her husband). A price is negotiated between the separating partners for each of the three words of “Talaaq” that the man would have otherwise spoken. For example, the woman can “buy” each “talaaq” word for say $100 and would need to pay $300 for her Khula! Lulu did not have that kind of money. Her ultimate crime was that she had demanded separation. The husband picked up a steel rod and broke her knee caps and screamed she was free but he would still take his price. He left, only to return at around 3 am that night. He demanded that Lulu cook for him though she was writing in pain. When she refused, he walked out into the dark in a rage.
He returned half an hour later. Lulu heard some commotion outside her tattered tent. Then the assault began. First her husband came in. He broke her elbows with the same steel rod and then raped her. Sixteen other men
followed. Lulu was unconscious by the end of it.
Her neighbours discovered her in the morning. Someone informed the police. The police picked her up and admitted her in an army hospital. After eight days she regained consciousness. Her knee caps and elbows were fractured, pelvic joint was dislocated, she had developed fistula, her vagina was infected and needed six stitches to keep the uterus in.
Her relatives came when they got the information about the assault. After fifteen days she could stand with difficulty and was released by the hospital. There was no way for the poor relatives to nurse Lulu back to health and that is when they got in touch with Fatima, who took Lulu under her care. Fatima admitted her in another hospital. Now, as she narrated the horror in detail, she cried.
What are the options for Lulu to get justice? She has two. One, she could appeal to her clan elders. They would congregate and summon Lulu’s husband in front of a tittering crowd. Lulu would have to scream at the top of her voice to be heard by the jury above the din of the crowd. She would have to narrate all the gory details in public. The clan elders would impose some symbolic fine on the husband, who would have to slaughter a goat for the public feast that would follow. But for this, Lulu will have to pay as the husband does not earn. Everyone would eat and have a good time. Lulu and her husband would go back to their misery, unless of course he decides to divorce her.
The second option for Lulu is that she could appeal to the court of the land. She could identify at least four of her rapists by their voices in the dark apart from her husband, but her husband would not be considered a rapist as he is married to her. The court would then order the police to arrest the perpetrators. They may get a sentence of some seven or eight years in jail after a trial of around a year.
Once they are put behind bars, Lulu would have to pay for the upkeep and food of her four rapists, as the government does not have the resources to meet the jail expenses. If Lulu does not pay, they would get released. And once they get released, we can imagine what will happen to Lulu again. Fatima is through with the story. She continues to cry. My vision blurs.
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