Tag Archives: Conflict

Somalia’s Women: Just a Spoil of War?

29 Jan

Credit: Sven Torfinn for The New York Times

If you’ve followed international news at all over the past 6-8  months you’ve probably seen some articles on the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, interspersed between pieces on the Arab Spring and US war efforts. A colleague recently sent me a piece on the situation in Somalia, which had been featured in the New York Times, with a headline that really caught my attention.

The headline of Jeffery Gettleman, Dec. 27th article declared “For Somali Women, Pain of Being a Spoil of War”.  Gettleman’s piece focused on the horrors of sexual violence facing Somali women and the challenges that relief organizations face in getting aid to the victims, a topic that I pleased to see making the national it into the national media. However, the bold headline left me with one question; Is the motive behind the spike in sexual violence in Somalia truly just the archaic notion of women being the “spoils of war”?

Gettleman focuses much of  his piece on the on the involvement Al-Shabaab, an extremist Islamic militant group controlling southern Somalia, which has been the perpetrator of many of the sexual assaults both inside and outside of the camps. He tells the story of a young woman who brutally raped by a group of Al-Shabaab fighters in a camp, just a few months after she watched the same men kill her friend for refusing to marry an Al-Shabaab commander. This Gettleman says has become common. Al–Shabaab goes into an area and forces young women into “temporary marriages”, which more closely resemble “sexual slavery”. With limited funds to pay their fighters, the militants often resort to stealing crops and livestock and providing women to their fighters is “a cheap way to bolster their rank’s flagging morale’. This description seems to epitomize the notorious concepts of  ”the spoils of war” and “rape and pilage”. But it seems to me that there is another motive behind Al-Shabaab’s attacks on Somali women.

Al-Shabaab’s use of terror, intimidation and control in areas they’re present in in Somalia is well documented. They control access to (and tax) much of the food and water supplies in the area, diverting food aid relief to benefit themselves and their supporters. They often limit the movement of populations, preventing those endangered by fighting or famine and drought from moving to safer areas. They’ve engaged in the forcible recruitment of both children and adults into their ranks and extrajudicial killings are common and often public. It seems likely that Al-Shabaab’s use of sexual violence, like many of their behaviors, is a tactic of control through fear, in addition to being opportunistic and advantageous to their efforts. The piece in the New York Times mentions in passing that Al-Shabaab “…is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia” and includes a quote from United Nations’ Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict stating that “for the Shabab, forced marriage is another aspect they are using to control the population.”. But little more is said about this article of the situation (In my opinion, a bit more analysis on this piece of the issue would have made a very good article, that much better).

In order for there to be effective long term solutions to problems like what we are seeing in Somalia, not only the international community, but the general public need to see the full picture. The international community has taken great steps towards recognizing that mass violence against women in conflicts, perpetrated by militias or even governments, is often as much tactile and strategic, as it is opportunistic. But still too much of the pulbic writes off sexual violence in wars as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and in a world of RSS feeds, tweets, and media websites  featuring 100s of headlines, a headline like Gettleman’s may just reinforce this archaic belief.