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INTERVIEW: Women in the Somali Security Forces: Highs, Lows and the Struggle for Change

Wednesday March 8, 2023


The average percentage of women in the police is around 15%. And of the three largest militaries in the world, the number of women serving is only 16% (USA), 5% (China) and 0.5% (India).

It is no secret that the gender ratio in the security sector is low, given the sector's male dominance. In conflict situations, women are often perceived as victims. However, this view fails to acknowledge women's important role in security and peace-building.                                     

For this interview, we sat down with Clare Brown, Gender Equality Expert with the UK-funded Strengthening Somalia’s National Security Architecture Programme at Adam Smith International, and Samira Osman, Senior Adviser to the Somali Police Commissioner,  who detailed highs and lows as well as possible solutions to the challenges Somali women in security face.

Samira, you’re a Somali who spent some time in the US - what made you return to Somalia? 

I never imagined myself returning from the US to Somalia, the place I was born, and fled from. Nor did I picture myself working in the Somali security sector. But the fact that many in the Diaspora are returning to Somalia to help rebuild our nation inspired me to come back, nine years ago, and I have not looked back since. Almost a decade later, I continue to be constantly inspired by Somalia’s women in uniform, and to feel proud of my role working with them, helping to rebuild the country. The stories of these women – of us – are rarely told. Little by little though, this year, women in uniform in Somalia have been trying to raise our voices – and people have been paying more attention; asking more questions. 

What draws you to working as a woman, or with women, in the Somali security forces? What do you like about it?     

Samira: The day I started work in the SPF, I was so excited, especially when I met a female uniformed officer working at their headquarters’ entrance gate. Back then, in 2014, the permanent government of Somalia had only recently been established. Not only were female police officers a new phenomenon, but so was the idea of a national, formalized police force itself. Both the police as an institution, and female police officers within it, are gradually becoming more normalized and accepted in Somalia. We now even have our first female Deputy Police Commissioner of the Somali Police, Brig. Gen Zakia Hussein Ahmed. But it is a process. Seeing those changes in how we are viewed, year by year, is exciting. 

The military, too, is still building itself up – with another powerful woman, Lt. Col. Iman Elman, charting the way. It does so in incredibly difficult conditions, as al-Shabaab fights it relentlessly across the country. I am very touched by the work of the mothers in the army who are on the front lines of defense. These women do not have basic services such as separate toilets or sleeping areas for women – and yet they are performing their duties and working in these difficult conditions, for the love of their country. 

I am constantly inspired by the many women in uniform, both police and SNA, that I have met during my work who are very happy to do their national duty and serve their people, despite the many challenges they face. I am always inspired by their hard work and positive outlook on the country and the future of women in uniform. I've met women in the security sectors working in harsh situations with happy faces, striving to see reform, and battling for the rights of women such as pay, promotion, and recruitment.

Clare: I have worked with the security sector Somalia for almost a decade, mostly focused on gender-sensitive policing and gender-based violence – but only recently have I had the opportunity to do so in women-only settings. Usually, in all contexts where security forces are present (in Somalia and everywhere else), male officers far outnumber the women. But in last year, women from the SPF, SNA and custodial corps gathered for the first time in a room where everyone – participants, facilitators, interpreters, visiting donors – was female. Suddenly, I was given access to a side of the Somali security sector I had not previously been able to engage with. The women discussed the challenges they faced with a frankness I had not seen before, as well as sharing stories of bravery, ingenuity and solidarity in the various ways they had tried to overcome them. Female military personnel talked about navigating postings where they had none of their own facilities, refusing to give up and return home. Female police officers charged with taking forward sexual violence and child protection cases, in a context where neither the draft Sexual Offences Bill nor the draft Child Protection Bill have been passed, spoke expertly about trying to find workarounds. 

While the women were frustrated, they were also buoyed by the understanding that their grievances were shared across institutions, and that there was enough of them to have collective power in their demands for change – and so was I. Their first meeting resulted in a recommendation for the establishment of a permanent, formal body for women in uniform. The women continue to pursue this objective, bringing an energy to the cause that it is hard to picture dwindling.  

What are the frustrations of working as a woman in the Somali security sector?

Samira: When I joined the police, many of the male officers I worked with questioned what I was doing there as a woman. Many Somali men believe that police work is only for men and that women have no place in it. I received a barrage of non-job-related personal questions – such as whether I was married, or had children, and why, or why not. I noticed a lack of knowledge amongst female police officers about their own rights, as well as a lack of training for police officers on how to respect their female colleagues.

 It became obvious that there was a lack of important basic policies in place to protect and provide opportunities to women. The law on the 'Organization of the Police Force' in Somalia is from 1972 – introduced long before the collapse of the former government. There are no sexual harassment policies. I realized that when it comes to recruiting new officers, there are no regulations that regulate the subject, especially to treat women who want to join the police equally. Moreover, women know that the chances to get promotions is zero or slim due to the male dominated context and other obstacles. I have seen many men of same rank or below talented women be promoted before them, just because of their gender. For this and similar reasons, women do not seek promotions in the SPF and SNA. 

The low numbers of women in these institutions is daunting. I think all the time about having such a small number of women in SPF and SNA. It is no longer new to me, as I have been working in the security sector for about nine years now, but it is a problem. Security institutions need to reflect the populations they serve.

Clare: Of course I cannot speak to this from my own experience, but in the last year, women have described to me experiences of being sexually harassed when asking for promotions; of being threatened, harassed and even physical abused by male colleagues or men outside of the institution who are not comfortable with them serving in their institution; and – many women told me this – of being handed abandoned babies that had been brought into the police station, with male officers expecting that, as women, they would look after them. 

The first two of these grievances are not new phenomena. Many types of workplaces around the world have been affected by similar trends, and there is much that can be done, with the right support, to introduce accountability and provide assistance to the women impacted. The third grievance was one I had never heard before – and the fact I did not know about this, even after over nine years of working with the police, is evidence of a wider reality: there is not enough support given to women in the security forces in Somalia, and 

not enough people listening to them, in our outside the country.

What can those in the international community be doing to help?

Samira Donors and other friendly countries supporting the Somali government have supported numerous programmes aimed to assist women – including funding women-led NGOs, and interventions to improve the lot of female civil servants – but it appears that women in uniform have been forgotten. Donors often fund initiatives to combat gender-based violence – and yet female police officers, who research shows are likely to be more effective at handling these cases, do not receive the same support. 

Since the current government is embarking on a broad security sector reform, donors and friends of Somalia can assist with this issue, as I believe, by moving away from the traditional technique of hosting seminars and similar activities that offer nothing. To make a significant difference for women in uniform while protecting their rights, it is critical to first assist security agencies in writing and completing basic laws that protect the rights of women in uniform, and then to begin implementing those laws while also providing training to women and men in security sector to understand the importance of equal rights at work. 

To understand what needs to be done, donors can talk to us, as the women serving in these institutions. We know what we need. We can advise. I would like to thank the British Embassy, and particularly the former ambassador, Kate Foster, for recently doing just that. She agreed to meet with the women in uniform, and listen to their experiences and challenges, as well as their recommendations. A list of key recommendations, as we gave to her, is included at the end of this article.

Clare: I think it's also important, as members of the international community, to not be condescending or paternalistic in our support to Somali women in uniform, or the Somali security forces in general. The challenges these women face are familiar to most women in male-dominated workplaces, in any country: sexual harassment, hostile attitudes, having to work twice as hard to be respected half as much. The reality that these phenomena can be debilitating to female Somali officers is not helped by the fact that many feel they cannot speak about these challenges openly, lest they inspire backlash against the institutions they are so proud to serve. The SPF and the SNA reconstituted with the appointment of the first permanent Somali government since the stateless period in 2012. They are still new, still writing the rules on how they will operate - and doing so in the context of a country at war with al-Shabaab. Security institutions all over the world are male dominated and patriarchal. Somali women in uniform do not want theirs – which are operating in harder circumstances than most, and from which they derive value and pride – to be condemned or written off. They do not, in short, want pity. They want support.   

What specific changes need to be made for women in uniform to get the support they need? 

Samira: Our group of women in uniform have adopted the following specific changes for reform:

  1. Establishment a formal Committee of Women in the Security Sector in Somalia – one that meets regularly, discusses challenges, formulates recommendations, and is able to have these recommendations formally submitted to government decision-makers who are then expected to provide a timely response. 

  1. Creating a Roadmap for Women in Uniform, establishing baselines and implementation plans for reform – including actions, dates, responsibilities, and funding requirements. This Roadmap needs high ranking males at the most senior levels of the security forces to champion it, and donors to adequately support it. It should include provisions on the revision of key laws and policies, including on female recruitment and sexual harassment. The Roadmap should be adequately supported by donors. 

  1. The Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights to report to the aforementioned Committee of Women in the Security Sector every six months on what progress has been made during parliamentary sessions on passing the draft Sexual Offences Bill (the 2015 version) and draft Child Rights Bill. 

  1. Adoption of a gender quota for actors who train security personnel in Somalia, to ensure at least 10% inclusion of women in all trainings. 

  1. Training and awareness raising for women and men in the security sector to understand the importance of equal rights at work.

About the project: 

Samira Osman and Clare Brown are speaking on gender and social inclusion based on their respective expertise' as part of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office-funded ‘Strengthening Somalia’s National Security Architecture (SSNSA)’ project. The project, implemented by Adam Smith International, provides technical advice to the Federal Government of Somalia to strengthen their capacity to lead on security sector reform priorities. The project is financed by the UK Conflict Security and Stability Fund (CSSF).   


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