(Photo: Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty Images)

takepart features

The Surprising City Where Rape Victims Are Finding Justice

A new approach is raising conviction rates in a war-torn country.
May 1, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Jacob Kushner reports on foreign investment and human rights in Africa. His work has appeared in NewYorker.com, Newsweek, Vice, Foreign Policy, and NationalGeographic.com.

Maryam was five months pregnant and living in Mogadishu’s Wadajir district when, one night in 2012, four men entered her home and took turns raping her while one of them stood guard outside. The last one stabbed her with the bayonet of his gun.

The next day, still bleeding, Maryam went to the police. When she told them what happened, they told her to clean her own blood off the floor and get out. Maryam never returned to pursue justice against the perpetrators. Three months later, she says, she was raped again.

“When we saw someone, we used to say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ ” Maryam told Human Rights Watch, which published her story last year. “Now when we see each other we ask, ‘Were you raped today?’ ”

In Somalia, sexual violence is a horrifyingly real threat. In July 2013, a mother of four was attacked in Mogadishu, the capital. It happened at night. The man entered her home with a knife. “I tried to resist but he kept saying he would kill me,” the woman told Amnesty International. “So I stopped.” While her children slept, the man raped her.

The next month it happened to a 14-year-old girl. She awoke in her home to find a man undressing her. “I tried to scream but he grabbed me by the throat so that I could not,” she told Amnesty. He raped her and then escaped. They almost always do.

Decades of war have divided Somalia into three regions, each with its own government. What they share are the challenges to prosecuting sexual assault. In south-central Somalia, which includes Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city, survivors of sexual violence have particularly scant hope for justice. The U.N. counted 1,700 rapes between January and November 2013 in Mogadishu; the total number of rape convictions that year in all of south-central Somalia was two.

“You’re more likely to be arrested for reporting than are your perpetrators,” says Antonia Mulvey, founder and executive director of NGO Legal Action Worldwide, an NGO that works to prevent sexual assault and improve justice outcomes for survivors. “The climate for impunity is very large.”

Today, though, Mulvey and her organization think they’ve found the solution, and they’re planning to work with the Somali Ministry of Women, Development & Family Affairs (MOWDAFA) to make it happen: a one-stop center where victims can report their crime to police while also receiving medical care, legal counsel, and psychological support. Though viewed as crucial to finding justice for survivors of sexual abuse in Mogadishu, setting up the center will be a tall order in the region, where there is barely any law enforcement, a history of abuse of women, and a tradition that mandates rape be dealt with by local clan elders rather than the official justice system.

But a model for success is 450 miles away in the city of Hargeisa, the capital of a region of Somalia known as Somaliland. Mulvey has seen the one-stop system work there—she helped set it up.

(Map: Google Maps)

When Mulvey arrived in Hargeisa in 2007, as an adviser to the United Nations Development Programme’s Rule of Law program, she found herself in a country where the obstacles to prosecuting sexual assault were many, and resources she could apply to doing so were few. Somalia was in the midst of a civil war; sexual violence, as in Mogadishu today, was frequent, and punishment for such crimes was rare.

Sexual assaults were rarely even reported. Absent a straightforward legal mechanism for prosecuting cases, seeking justice falls to the survivor's family, which seeks restitution from the family of the perpetrator based on Xeer, a traditional legal system that dates back centuries. Clan elders hear cases, but punishments of those found guilty of crimes against women are soft.

Mulvey and her colleagues had heard of a one-stop center to address sexual violence—a place where victims of sexual violence could not only get free medical attention but also report the crime to police. In 1986, Saint Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, England, opened just such a center, and by all accounts it was working wonderfully. Mulvey thought the medical attention would attract survivors in Hargeisa, and the presence of law enforcement personnel could get the legal process in motion while the woman was in a safe place, surrounded by nurturing professionals. The challenge would be replicating a model established in a highly functioning, relatively wealthy city in one still cleaning up the rubble from a war. They decided to try anyway, at Hargeisa Group Hospital, the main hospital in the troubled city.

“There was a lot of resistance,” recalls Mulvey, “from the ministries and the police. They didn’t want this because it was to admit [rape] was happening. There were huge arguments about where [the center] would be and who would have control over it.”

Police worried their authority would be usurped if instead of reporting the crime to them, a survivor could speak first with doctors, lawyers, and other trained support staff. Doctors and nurses felt that the hospital was no place for police and attorneys. Convincing health care providers police wouldn’t interfere with their work; convincing police that their power over the legal process would remain in place; and persuading everyone to undergo training on how to respond to incidents of gender-based violence took a year.

Antonia Mulvey. (Photo: Twitter)

“With our Somali colleagues, [we] spent many hours discussing the concept of the one-stop center and that it would not reduce the power of the police, the doctors, or the attorney general's office but in fact would result in more survivors coming forward to report crimes and increase the number of convictions,” Mulvey says.

So, in 2008 and with funding from UNICEF, UNDP, and the German aid organization Kindernothilfe, Baahi-Koob Sexual Assault Referral Centre opened at Hargeisa Group Hospital. On arrival, survivors can seek immediate medical attention, speak with a psychologist and a social worker, and report their case directly to one of eight full-time members of a police Criminal Investigation Department who keep offices at the hospital. Doctors use a standardized medical form that satisfies the requirements of all involved parties for a prosecution to move forward—the CID, the Ministry of Justice, the attorney general’s office, and UNDP.

By 2012 the center was handling nearly 200 cases of sexual and gender-based violence a year; by 2013 the number reached 326—every reported case of sexual violence prosecuted that year in Somaliland—171 of which were prosecuted, resulting in 54 convictions. The rate of convictions for gender-based violence, 31 percent, exceeds the 18 percent of rape cases, according to a national study, that are successfully prosecuted in the U.S. Last year, 399 cases were reported at Baahi-Koob; 191 were prosecuted, leading to 47 convictions. Another 109 are pending.

The model has proved so successful that last year UNDP sponsored two satellite centers in nearby hospitals, based on the same model.

But can it work in Mogadishu?

You’re more likely to be arrested for reporting your rape than are your perpetrators.

Antonia Mulvey, executive director, Legal Action Worldwide

In south-central Somalia, an estimated 72 percent of rape cases are handled through the customary system, compared with just 32 percent in Somaliland since Baahi-Koob opened. Abdifatah Hassan Ali, information and communications officer for the Somali Women Development Centre in Mogadishu, says his organization tells people “not to accept this informal justice. The family of the perpetrator pays a small amount of money—this is the best scenario. But even that doesn’t go to the victim—it goes to the relatives. And the perpetrator goes free. We tell them we have to take this case to court. But the client community and the elders are stronger than the legal system.”

South-central Somalia’s legal process is so disjointed that a woman who is raped in Mogadishu must crisscross town several times to offices across the city, all within 24 hours of her attack, to complete the bureaucratic steps necessary for a prosecution to proceed.

“A survivor first has to go to a police station. Then go back to the hospital, which is a very far distance,” says Ali. “And from the hospital to the [police investigator]. Each step takes more time. Sometimes they say, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ ” In most cases, time is of the essence. “Because almost all women [in Somalia] undergo female genital mutilation, cases of rape often require urgent medical attention,” says Clare Brown, legal officer at LAW.

Worse than the time and distance, a survivor is likely to encounter obstacles at every step. “When you go to the police station, they ask you to pay money,” explains Ali. “They will not take her case until she has paid them.” Police decide not to pursue the case 85 percent of the time; the decision process has no transparency or oversight.

If a survivor’s experience with police isn’t enough to dampen her resolve, her case is likely to end when she reaches the government-run Medina Hospital in Mogadishu. There she must ask for a physical examination and a document certifying that she was raped. The certifications are hard to come by, says Ali. “If they think she might have been raped by [police or members of the military], they will try to hide the case.”

Going to a different hospital will do no good: The government only accepts certifications from Medina. Research suggests that the decision to certify often falls on one particular male doctor stationed there. If he doesn’t agree you were raped, your attempt for justice in south-central Somalia has just ended.

That so many are now reporting gender-based violence in Somaliland “proves that women do want to have their day in court,” says Brown. If all the necessary steps could happen more or less simultaneously in one building, international donors could much more easily monitor each actor and help hold that person accountable, says Halima Adan, project manager for the Mogadishu-based organization Save Somalia Women and Children. Baahi-Koob isn’t the only example of this approach working; similar centers exist in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and they’ve achieved similar success.

sign up for the takepart features email

Add context and dimension to the issues you care about with personal stories and gripping long form narratives reported from the inside of where news is happening.
By submitting the form above, you agree to TakePart's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe at any time. Contact us here.

Critics of the one-stop model are few, though some have pointed out that with Somalia’s weak government, such a center could create further dependence on NGOs. Keith Biddle, who helped UNDP train Somali police, lawyers, and health care providers to better aid sexual assault survivors, says, “Somali solutions to Somali problems is what you want, [but] there needs to be a consensus by those in government. If you can get the Somalis interested and get them to lead it, it will happen.”

That’s just what Mulvey and colleagues are working toward. MOWDAFA has asked LAW to draft a Sexual Offences Bill, and the NGO is lobbying European countries to urge legislators in Mogadishu to introduce the bill in the coming months. It would, for the first time, define the crime of rape as one against a person, rather than against morality, as the current law—in place since 1930—has it. The bill would also obligate prosecutors to investigate rape allegations and ban clan-based settlements of charges of sexual violence.

A version of the bill is on track to pass in Somaliland, which has its own parliament, but progress has been slower in Mogadishu. Ali’s group has been organizing meetings of officials and survivors so those with the power to help can hear firsthand the damage the current system is doing to the people it nominally represents. Mulvey is working the donor angle.

“We are asking donors including the United Nations and other agencies” to pressure the government to pass the bill, she says, and for funding. So far, there has been support to change the law, but none for the proposed sexual assault referral center at Medina Hospital. In other words, all that’s missing to end impunity for rape in Somalia is some commitment—and dollars—from the West.

CORRECTION [May 5, 1015]: Due to an editing error, a previously published version of this article implied that NGOs had not provided financial support for the Sexual Offences Bill. TakePart regrets the mistake.