Struggling for women’s rights in Somalia

Zam Zam Adbullahi has been a human rights activist in Somalia for many years. In addition to being the capacity building officer for Coalition for Grassroots Women Organizations (COGWO), she is the Chairperson of the Somali branch of the African network for prevention and Protection of child abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN). 

What sparked your interest in human rights? I looked around me and realised that women in Somalia have no control over their lives. Their parents take them out of school at a young age and marry them off. Rich men come to Mogadishu looking for wives and the parents just give their daughters away, selling them as if they were property. Working as a journalist, I knew that journalism was dominated by men and that there was no real way to cover women’s issues. So, in 2001, I decided to focus on defending women’s rights. What do you think are the main challenges in the struggle against human rights abuses? People’s prejudices and misconceptions. There is a lot of opposition to women’s rights. I am being accused of teaching women ‘fake’ rights, but what we teach them is the Universal Declaration. Some people think that the declaration doesn’t apply to women. [My colleagues and I] are being accused of taking women out of their homes and putting them out on the streets. The key problem is that Somali women are uninformed and have no female role models to look up to or who can give them encouragement and inspiration. Women in Somalia have no control, no political voice, and they take no part in decision making. Many are afraid to speak up against abuse because they are scared of losing everything and of their husbands throwing them out. If you could change one thing about the situation with women’s rights in Somalia, What would it be? Give women better access to education. Enable them to learn more, know their rights and stand up for themselves. Young women who go to university are still vulnerable to abuse, but at least they know that it is wrong. Somali women need to know about their the rights according to Islam – that standing up for their rights does not mean abandoning their culture and their religion. Women don’t know, for example, that no one can take their children away from them in the first seven years of the child’s life. They don’t know [that], if they divorce, it is their husband who should have to leave the marital home. The rights are there, but women are kept in the dark. What impact does your work have on your life and/or you family? Our office [at Coalition for Grassroots Women Organizations (COGWO)] was targeted and my colleagues and I were asked to publically denounce our work for women as criminal activity. We have received threats and a number of my colleagues have been killed.  But the work I do is fulfilling and I’m full of conviction that I’m on the right track. I meet and speak to so many women. My 7-year-old daughter is used to people coming in the middle of the night, asking for help and needing to be taken to the hospital. I feel like she is already beginning to understand. What keeps you motivated when times are hard? The desire for accountability. The hope that we could one day take people to court for what they do to women. And the women who contact us and ask for our help – they keep me going. Do you have a message for our readers? We need to help women find a voice. They need help in order to ask for justice. We have a cause to fight for, and a goal to achieve. Sometimes people get angry with you and not everyone will be happy with what you are trying to achieve. But you shouldn’t let opposition stop you.