SOMALIA – Breaking the Silence: A contextual analysis of the barriers, laws and policies to safe abortion following rape in Puntland, Somalia

From the Executive Summary

“The release of a Somali man on death row for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl after he paid 75 camels undermines a landmark law to curb gender violence and promotes a culture of impunity in the east African nation,” women’s rights groups said.

Sexual violence is at epidemic proportions in Puntland, a semi-independent state located in the northeast corner of Somalia, though official data is not kept. Women and girls there face some of the most persistent and systemic gender inequities in the world…. At the same time, survivors of sexual assault have limited recourse to sexual and reproductive health services after assault: in this officially Islamic state, abortion is only allowed to save the life of the mother, and based on the prevailing norms of the clinic or doctor performing the operation, can be refused; further, emergency contraception is not or rarely available. The main goal for this research assignment was to collect data around the barriers of accessing safe abortion services experienced by survivors of sexual violence and whether Islam, as interpreted in Puntland’s sharia law, allows for the exercise of a right to access abortion services following an act of sexual violence. Research questions include: what laws, policies and protections are in place for sexual violence survivors vis-à-vis abortion? How do these laws, policies and protections interact with social and gender norms? To what extent are these laws, policies and protections for sexual violence survivors vis-à-vis abortion enforced? And how can these laws, policies and protections be supplemented, revised or amended?

Data were collected from both primary and secondary data sources including desk review, key informant interviews (KIIs) and focus group discussions (FGDs). The desk review focused on searching available online resources on the links between sexual violence, sexual and reproductive health services including safe abortion, and social and gender norms related to sexuality. Two FGDs were conducted with community members and leaders, and two with health care professionals in an attempt to understand the barriers rape survivors experience in accessing safe abortion services in Puntland. KIIs were conducted comprising ministry officials (Ministry of Education, Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development, Ministry of Health), members of Parliament, judicial officials/ legal experts and relevant CSO executives to gain understanding on the relevant laws, policies and protections available for rape survivors to carry out safe abortions. In-depth interviews were conducted with rape survivors and those affected by rape (family relatives) to understand their experiences in accessing safe abortion services. This was very sensitive research to do – however, we felt very strongly that the voices of rape survivors themselves should drive the conversation.

Experts interviewed unanimously agreed that the incidence of rape in Puntland is high and has been increasing over the last few years. The health providers mentioned that in general women do not seek abortion services, attributing it to a culture of silence and shame among Somali women, even if she is in urgent need. They added that communities tend to be far away from medical centres and sometimes family members do not allow women to travel at all. If a woman does seek an abortion, they tend to resort to traditional abortions using service providers whose discretion they can trust not to report the service to the government.

Among the survivors interviewed, they report having received legal advice related to filing complaints with the police as well as seeking compensation and redress; medical care such as testing for sexually-transmitted infections (STI), pregnancy, maternal care, and psychological services (counselling, and family support mechanisms etc.). Two families expressed that they were tempted to search for the perpetrator themselves but, failed to do it as they did not have police support. Three out of the five interviewees clearly stated they sought an abortion following rape, though none managed to get the intervention. In two cases family members were also involved in the process of seeking options for interrupting the pregnancy.

The challenges present in Puntland in terms of access to health services in cases of rape and abortion were found to be; a lack of Rape Kits (‘Kit Three’) to prevent STI and unwanted pregnancy and even if available, a lack of awareness at community level in terms of services and laws, a lack of health services and a scarcity of trained staff to administer the drugs of the Rape Kit (Kit Three), and a rather arbitrary decision-making process about who offers Kit Three. Among the recommendations made were: providing legal recourse to safe abortion for pregnant survivors of sexual violence, changing social and gender norms by supporting the works of local feminist groups and gender rights and justice advocates, eliminating barriers that prevent women surviving sexual violence from receiving safe abortion services, provision of comprehensive services for rape survivors, applying a harm reduction approach for sexual violence survivors who meet hardships in accessing safe abortion services due to the social, economic and legal barriers, training of qualified police, medical, legal staff about rape, facilitating data collection and dissemination, and training of qualified police, medical, legal staff.

FULL REPORT, by Hussein Yussuf Ali, Christopher Hook, SIDRA Institute, Somali Gender Justice, December 2020