Somalia: political participation and 20 years of WPS agenda

Somalia: political participation and 20 years of WPS agenda

In the current environment, with clan-based selection processes, institutionalized quotas are the only way to ensure women’s inclusion in the political process

By Samiya Gaid

As the global community marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, it affords nations like Somalia the opportunity to take stock of progress against the critical commitments of women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in politics and peacebuilding as well as the protection of women and girls in times of peace and war. 

Increased reports of incidents of violence against women and girls in recent months highlight why this resolution was drafted in the first place. This landmark resolution recognized the disproportionate impact that conflict has on women, their agency as key actors in peace processes, and the importance of integrating gender perspectives into the peace and security agenda. 

This commemoration also comes at a critical juncture as Somalia prepares for its upcoming elections. Despite a strong history of political activism, Somali women have still not made enough gains in realizing meaningful inclusion in peacebuilding processes, security institutions, and as policymakers.  

Women’s movements over time 

Somali women’s role in the public and political sphere has been a widely contested and emotive subject, particularly over the last 50 years. The historically patriarchal and conservative society was upended in 1970, following the ardent application of state feminism by then-President Mohamed Siad Barre. What followed was an era that saw “progressive policies” privileging women and promoting their freedoms at the expense of other groups. 

“When we were growing up, the expectations for boys and girls were the same, we all went to school and our parents treated us the same. I grew up with that mentality, I never felt I was less than a man,” – Fartuun Adan, Executive Director, Elman Peace

This growing influence and participation of women in public and political life drew condemnation from moderates and conservatives alike. In stark contrast, the rest of society felt the brunt of centralized state control coupled with a repressive security apparatus. The subsequent loss of civil liberties came to a head in 1975, with the execution of ten religious clerics and the detainment of hundreds more in response to their public criticism of a newly promulgated Family Law. This law challenged fundamental principles in Islamic Shariah and traditional Somali law (Xeer), giving women equal rights in marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Forty-five years in, any talk of promoting women’s rights is still viewed in the shadow of the execution of the religious scholars, purportedly in support of women’s rights. 

Election intrigues

In more recent history, efforts towards increased women’s political participation bore fruit in the 2016-2017 election period with the entry of 80 female legislators in both houses. This almost doubled the previous attainment of 14 percent to 24 percent participation in the House of the People and was as a result of a well-coordinated movement by a lobby of strong unified women’s civil society organizations. They were able to agitate and maintain the pressure for a 30 percent women’s quota for Members of Parliament and a 50 percent reduction in the candidates’ registration fee for women, among other affirmative action measures adopted into the electoral model. The social mobilization by women was supplemented by a supportive International Community that bolstered their efforts. 

In the previous two elections, the main obstacles for women have been the electoral model’s complexity centered on the 4.5 clan-based power-sharing system that deepened clannism while disadvantaging women and other marginalized groups. There was an additional factor of financial constraints, making it difficult to compete against established male counterparts.  In the 2016-2017 election, Somalia, for the first time, introduced a two-chamber parliament with a 275 member Lower House based on the 4.5 power-sharing quota and a 54 member Upper House approved by the Federal and Regional Administrations. Each member of the Lower House was elected by a 51 member electoral college, making a total electorate of 14,025. The combined MPs and Senators would elect the President. 

However, this process was marred by continuous allegations of corruption and intimidation of clan elders, Electoral College members, and prospective candidates. Female candidates were intimidated and, in some cases, prevented from accessing the election sites. Some male candidates insisted on competing alongside the female candidates, completely disregarding the quota with the tacit support of clan elders and electoral implementation teams. Nonetheless, the women leaders managed to secure an unprecedented 24 percent parliamentary seats. This was a hard-won battle for Somali women in a process widely viewed as flawed. This partial success came despite strong resistance from clan elders and male politicians alike and would not have been achieved without the institutionalization of the women’s quota. 

“The 30 percent quota is great, we have managed to get a record number of women MP’s in but since then they haven’t done much for the Women’s agenda. If the idea was to have visible women’s leadership, then that’s fine, but I don’t believe that was the only objective,” – Rahma Abdullahi, Inclusive Leadership Activist. 

However, these unprecedented high numbers of women in the legislature do not necessarily translate into influence. The institutional and structural constraints remain the same; women politicians still face the same patriarchal social norms and are often sidelined or left out of key negotiations. Their efforts to promote gender-sensitive policies, although few and far-in-between, are often blocked on the pretext of cultural and societal norms. It was on their watch that the electoral law was passed without a gender quota; this inability to overcome resistance to draft legislation promoting women’s rights highlights their relative weakness.

Rebirth of a state 

As Somalia transitions out of conflict, it is at a critical juncture in the realization of the Women, Peace and Security agenda.  Somali women have an opportunity to renegotiate their political role and advance gender-equality through the ongoing constitutional review process and the various legislative reforms. The upcoming elections, also offer an opportunity. 

The hopes for the long awaited one-person-one-vote were dashed recently, and a political agreement was reached by the Federal Government and Federal Member states for another indirect election. The new agreed-upon electoral model seeks to double the Electoral College to 101 delegates selecting each Member of Parliament compared to 51 in the last election. The clan elders, regional representatives, and civil society will select the delegates jointly. Further, while a 30 percent Women’s quota has been included in this model, no guidelines have been provided on how this will be implemented.

With the parliamentary elections slated for November 2020 and the Presidential election in February 2021, time is running short, although it remains to be seen whether this unrealistic timeline will be adhered to. With the outlook bleak on whether the quota reserved for women will be achieved, efforts to create an enabling environment to advance the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda will almost certainly stall. 

Women’s groups will need to rebuild strategic alliances across all spheres, especially incorporating male allies to play a much more critical role in the coming months if this trend is to be reversed. Indeed, it remains to be seen if women leaders can build on, if not replicate, the 2016-2017 successes by mobilizing into a unified social movement. So far, there is no indication that women groups have started to organize and combine forces in a meaningful way. 

One indicator is that there has been no real advocacy around reducing the candidate fees, which still stands at $10,000 (Ksh1 million) per candidate for both men and women. Additionally, all except one Federal Member state have excluded women from their election committees. The lack of collective condemnation by Somali and international stakeholders on this and other setbacks does not bode well for women’s inclusion. 

Some argue that women representation through the quota system in Somalia has not lived up to the high expectations set and has not equaled effective representation, thus doing more damage to the women’s agenda. Inversely, it could be argued that quotas on their own are not sufficient; instead, the “specific nature of the quota and its relationship to the overall context and electoral system” as well as enabling legislature are also key determining factors. Nonetheless, in the current political environment, with clan-based selection processes, institutionalized quotas are the only way to ensure women’s inclusion in the political process. (

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