“Were you raped today?” Human Rights Watch reports this furtive question is now a common greeting in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. This mournful question draws much needed attention to the ugly proliferation of rape and sexual violence in the country.
Somalia (a country whose name is nearly synonymous with chronic instability) is still embroiled in a 23-year-long civil war and as the country enters an intense period of reconstruction with the 2012 inauguration of the first permanent, federal government since the start of the conflict, several humanitarian crises remain to be contended with. While any progress is welcomed as a step in the direction of long-term stability, Somalia remains, as it has for the past six years, the world’s clearest example of a failed state.
The absence of stability and an enfeebled national government engenders a landscape where widespread sexual violence goes largely unchecked and unpunished. These rampant sexual attacks are a preeminent point of concern for human rights practitioners. As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations (UN) Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Somali Government is obligated to protect its citizens from sexual violence. Moreover, as a signatory to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), Somalia has indicated that it has a commitment to eliminating sexual violence.
Few places in the world are in greater need of stability than Somalia. Since the start of the country’s civil war in 1991, Somalia remains the bellwether for continued and protracted political violence as well as societal breakdown. There is hope however, that with the establishment of a new permanent government, Somalia can start to rebuild and address the sexual violence plaguing the country. The UN reported that in 2012 there were at least 1,700 cases of rape in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps throughout Somalia. What’s more, a staggering 70% of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes wore government uniforms and one-third of survivors were under the age of 18. Distressfully, this pattern continued in 2013. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that in the first half of the year, there were 800 incidents of rape in the capital Mogadishu alone. Adding to the dire situation is the level of sexual violence exacted on the youth of Somalia. In 2013, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its partners provided aid to 2,200 victims of sexual violence under the age of 18.
Stories of women and girls dragged from their tents, beaten, and gang-raped by security forces or armed militiamen are a common narrative in the IDP camps. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch highlights that crimes like these go largely unreported or unpunished. Amnesty International concludes that investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for sex crimes are highly uncommon in Somalia, with some women suffering reprisals for coming forward to the authorities. These police practices compound the stigma that victims face when reporting a sex crime. Amnesty International also points towards the insensitive and intrusive nature of police questioning as well as the general unwillingness of police to investigate these types of crimes as a major humanitarian hurdle that the Somali Government must surmount.
As a party to the ICCPR and the CAT, the Somali Government is obligated to prevent the types of abhorrent activities that are proliferating throughout its territory. Article 7 of the ICCPR places personal security and integrity at the forefront of a state’s human rights obligations. Specifically, Article 7 prohibits torture, or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, enshrining a universal protection against unwanted sexual activity. Tied with the general principle, Articles 2 and 26 prevent the state from discriminating based on sex through the enforcement of laws and prosecution of crime. Though Somalia only signed and not ratified the Maputo Protocol, its signature indicates its commitment to promulgating and implementing laws that criminalize all forms of violence and unwanted sexual contact. Additionally, Somalia’s signature on the Protocol should help the country establish effective procedures for punishing perpetrators of sex and gender-based crimes, while also creating an effective administrative structure for overseeing and implementing proper justice for International law requires that the Somali Government protect its citizens from this epidemic of sexual violence. The Somali Government can only comply with this universal legal principal under international law by putting to action laws protecting women and children from sexual violence.