GENDER ALERT: A historic passage of the Sexual Offences Bill in Somaliland

In an ululating victory for Somaliland, the sexual offences bill that was awaiting President Muse Bihi Abdi’s signature, was finally ratified – in a significant legislative move to deter rape and all gender-based violations against women in the state. This move must also be regarded as a notable advancement of the rights of women and girls in the region.

Following Somaliland’s notable passing of the first law against rape, early this year – in a drive to combat gender-based violence by the Parliament’s upper house after a long period in waiting, the bill was further approved by the House of Representatives – rejecting the amendments that were previously made to the initial bill by the “Guurti” – House of Elders. Subsequently, the initial bill that was tabled in April 2018 was finally endorsed by the Senators in the House of Representatives.

Over the years, the spiraling prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence and the accompanying victimization of women and girls have warranted attention across the Horn of Africa region and the rest of the world. In the case of Somaliland, cases of gang rape have been alarming and threatening to Somaliland’s current image of peace and stability.

In the past, only three ambiguous sections of the 1962 criminal code referred to sexual violence,  failing to adequately define and provide sufficient protection to survivors of sexual violence  and in fact, most cases were handled under customary law – out of the statutory court, through negotiations between families; subsequently translating into perpetrators being offered clan protection.

In a testament by Guleid Ahmed Jama, Director of the Human Rights Center in Hargeisa – he exclaims that the law is very important in fighting impunity, providing access to justice for victims and creating a legal framework regarding sexual offences. He goes on to clarify that the journey is long, with more that needs to be done with its implementation and institutions being reformed and behavior changing – in addition to giving rural dwellers, avenues of justice in absence of access to government institutions. 

Under the newly-ratified law, all forms of sexual offences will be criminalized, including rape, gang rape, sexual assault, child marriage and trafficking – with the perpetrator of rape facing a sentence of at least 30 years in prison.

SIHA’s Chairperson – Kaltun Hassan exclaims that the new law will impact the lives of many young, female SGBV survivors. She further alludes to the fact that the significance of the law is of interest to the entire nation, particularly narrowing the gender gap and advancing the rights of women and girls; and the onus is on civil society actors to push forward the agenda of acceleration and dissemination of the law in other districts of Somaliland.

With this ratification of the Sexual Offences Bill by the President, there is the anticipation that the stigma attached to reporting rape – deeply entrenched in the Somali society will be reduced and, will further open the conversation on matters of sex – where families can come forward on issues of sexual assault/ violence.

Kinzi Hussein Kowdan, Executive Director of WORDA – one of SIHA’s members, cautions that there are many de-campaigning the law because of the high and ruthless penalties, however goes on to recommend that incessant lobbying and advocacy in unison, must accompany implementation of the law to avoid having laws on paper.  

Evidently, raising the public’s awareness, service provision to victims and documentation of sexual violence cases, have all played a pivotal role in evidence-based advocacy to reform the criminal justice system in Somaliland. Following this, SIHA reiterates that domesticating the law among duty-bearers and rights-holders is paramount – health institutions and justice agencies must be well-resourced in order to see the law’s full adoption and adequate functioning.