Blaming the victims of rape in Somalia

Mogadishu (AFP) - After 14-year-old Fatima was raped by a tuk-tuk driver, she was arrested, detained for a month and raped repeatedly by a police officer, according to the child and her aunt.

Sexual violence is widespread in Somalia and rarely prosecuted. If anyone is punished at all it is often the victim, not the perpetrator.

"We are fighting to change that attitude of blaming the victims," said Fartuun Adan, who runs the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in the Somali capital Mogadishu, where survivors of sexual violence can find refuge, medical care and support.

"There must be consequences for men who rape," she said, but instead those who report rape are frequently arrested themselves.

When it comes to rape cases in the socially conservative Horn of Africa nation, blaming the victim is the norm -- and there have been no consequences for Fatima's uniformed attackers.

A slight girl no more than five feet (150 centimetres) tall, she lives in one of the squalid camps for the uprooted that dot the city. The UN children's agency UNICEF says young women and girls in the camps are "systematically preyed upon", frequently by armed personnel.

Last year the advocacy group Human Rights Watch accused some members of the 22,000 African Union force in Somalia of rape and sexual exploitation.

When not attending the Islamic madrassa that substitutes for school, Fatima (not her real name) and her aunt would make and sell sweets.

One slow day she got in a motorised rickshaw or tuk-tuk with a plan to try selling her sweets in another part of town, but the driver took her to a quiet spot and raped her instead.

Hearing the commotion, police arrested both the girl and her attacker. Soon afterwards the man was released and Fatima was accused of being a prostitute. "The police arrested me, they blamed me," she said, her voice a whisper.

Fatima's aunt spent a month seeking her release. The officers would joke when she visited, telling her they were training Fatima to work for them as a cleaner. Fatima had become uncharacteristically taciturn, telling her aunt to abandon her, to "consider her already dead".

Fatima's aunt said she reported what was happening to the authorities.

"They said I shouldn't talk like that and must leave," she said. Fatima was released after the Elman Centre intervened but she was traumatised by the experience and still faces the threat of a court appearance for prostitution.

"She used to be full of life and joy," said Fatima's aunt. "She's not the same person anymore."

- A refuge for survivors -

"If you can't go to the police without fear, where can you go?" asks Adan.

An answer to that question is found in the Elman Centre in Mogadishu, which Adan runs with her daughter Ilwad Elman.

It includes a 15-bed safe house for victims of rape and a host of other forms of sexual violence and abuse, including the near-universal female genital mutilation -- the cutting off of the clitoris -- and widespread forced and early marriage.

Among the current residents of the safe house is 18-year old Marian (not her real name), who was forced to marry an old man.

"The decision came from my father. I had no choice," she said.

Nor did she have any choice when it came to sex with her new husband, which was never consensual. Mariam said her husband used to beat her and she ran away repeatedly. But each time she fled home her father would send her back to her husband.

In the end she "became hopeless" and attempted suicide by setting herself on fire while at her father's house. Neighbours extinguished the flames, leaving her with a web of weeping sores on her arm and across her chest.

Despite the prevalence of sexual violence, as well as the stigma and shame that frequently follows, Adan said she has seen some modest improvement in recent years.

"Rape is not getting less, but people are talking about it," she said.

"The government, the family, the clan, none of them want to talk about it," said Adan. "But women are coming out to speak."

"When we started talking about rape in 2010 no one was saying anything. Now it's accepted there is a problem so we're in the second phase: how do you fix it?"

Somalia's draft constitution includes provisions for new laws on rape, sexual violence and female genital mutilation, and sets the minimum age for marriage at 18. But political progress is slow, and the legislation is yet to be passed.

Like much else that is broken in Somalia, the causes of the pervasive rape can be found in the decades of anarchic conflict that began in 1991 and continues in some parts of the country today.

"Sexual violence is another legacy of the war in Somalia," Adan said.