Somalian and Sudanese Girls’ Lives Were Difficult Enough. They’re Getting Worse.
In Somalia, a girl over 12 has a much better chance of getting married than of going to school.
Despite this, Somali lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow girls to legally marry once they hit puberty, regardless of age, as long as their parents give consent.
United Nations officials say provisions in the bill “grossly contravene international human-rights law and standards to which Somalia is a party.”
“This new draft legislation would represent a serious step backward for the rights of victims of sexual violence in Somalia, in particular women and girls,” said the U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet. “It risks legitimizing child marriage, among other alarming practices, and … would also send a worrying signal to other states in the region.”
In its original form, the bill, created seven years ago, would have strengthened protections for girls and women. But lawmakers drastically reworked it, inserting a provision that would allow minors to marry based on reproductive maturity. The new bill would also establish criminal penalties for forced marriage only if a female was “strongly” forced into the marriage without the knowledge and consent of her family, according to a U.N. statement released in August.
The bill would weaken protections for victims of sexual violence, which is prevalent in the country. Somalia ranks fourth-lowest for gender equality globally, says a recent case study by the agencies U.N. Women and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. In Somalia, about 45 percent of girls are married before the age of 18, according to U.N. figures, while about 8 percent are married under the age of 15.
Aid officials say these numbers vastly underestimate the situation. In fact, teachers have told Al-Fanar Media that their female students often drop out around age 11 or 12 to marry, often after suffering female genital mutilation. (See a related article, “For Many Somali Girls, Education Ends With a Brutal Ritual.“)
High Levels of Illiteracy
The bill comes as aid officials worry that the coronavirus pandemic has already worsened the situation for girls in Somalia.
The East African country has been plagued by decades of conflict, leading to the displacement of more than two million people, both internally and externally. The country has also suffered from drought and other natural disasters, severe poverty and weak governance. Population figures from 2014 indicate it has about 4.5 million school-age children, with 41 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls enrolled in school. Three million children are out of school across the country, according to a Unicef assessment released in February.
In 486 refugee settlements in Mogadishu, the capital, only 22 percent of internally displaced girls over 5 years old have ever attended school, according to a paper that’s part of Unesco’s 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report. (The paper is titled “The Intersections Between Education,Migration and Displacement Are Not Gender-Neutral.”) By comparison, 37 percent of internally displaced boys have attended school.
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The government has little capacity to provide education for most children, especially the 2.6 million who are internally displaced and those who live in large swathes of the country with ongoing armed conflict and where the population is often under the control of militant groups that attack schools as Western.
This situation has led to sexual violence against girls. Thousands of children have been kidnapped or recruited and used as soldiers by armed groups. Many children have been killed or maimed—more than 1,000 in 2018, according to a 2019 U.N. document titled “Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General.”
Culture and Fear Promote Child Marriage
In fact, aid officials say the fear of sexual violence and forced marriage by armed militants often motivates parents to marry off their girls early. Sometimes the marriages are just about money: Brides bring in income that can help a family survive, and even pay for a boy’s schooling.
And sometimes it’s just culture that undermines girls’ desire to get an education.
For example, Nasrin was 14 when she married. The would-be husband promised to let her continue school. He lied.
“I was married to a man I had never met before,” she told Save the Children in an interview for a report. “He came to my family and asked to marry me—my parents couldn’t refuse because that is against our culture. But he said he would keep his promise.”
Later, after they married, Nasrin, whose real name was withheld, told him she wanted to return to school. He said no, even after her mother spoke to him. Then the marriage began to have problems. Eventually, the teenager asked for a divorce and went back to school.
“I don’t know why he changed everything and broke his promise,” said Nasrin, who now wants to finish high school and work for herself. “I don’t want to go back to that life. I would (advise) parents not to do that to their daughters. It hurts a lot.”
Genital Cutting Is on the Increase
In a flash survey in Somalia, released in July, the U.N. Population Fund reported that nearly a third of respondents said they believed child marriages have increased.
Meanwhile, another key indicator alarms aid officials: Female genital mutilation has also been increasing. The practice, which is legal, usually occurs during school holidays or during the rainy season.
“The lockdown is being seen as an opportune time for the procedure to be carried out in the home with ample time for healing,” said Sadia Allin, Plan International’s head of mission in Somalia, in a report released in May. “The economic (downturn) is also motivating the cutters … and they are (going) door-to-door to cut girls.”
“One of the cases we have recorded is of two sisters aged 8 and 9 who were cut last week,” she added.
Somalia, where mothers often view the procedure as a vital precursor to marriage and part of all girls’ upbringing, has the highest number of cases of female genital mutilation in the world. Ninety-eight percent of girls between the ages of 5 and 11 have undergone the procedure, according to Unicef.
In 2020 alone, the U.N. Population Fund says that 4.1 million girls and women are at risk of undergoing the procedure, as the pandemic has halted programs to eradicate it.
The situation in Somalia is especially concerning due to demographic and economic factors. Somalia’s population skews young: About three-quarters of Somalis are under 30 years old, according to a 2014 Population Estimation Survey.
At the same, about 90 percent of households live on less than $2 per person per day, according to the Somalia Joint Multi-Cluster Needs Assessment of November 2019.
“Any shock that affects sources of livelihoods immediately threatens to push a large number of households further into crisis-like conditions,” the report said.
Drop in Remittances Threatens Schooling
Researchers and aid officials are also concerned about the impact of the pandemic in the greater region. In Ethiopia, which hosts an estimated 219,000 Somali refugees and 63,000 Sudanese, the average rate of attendance for refugee girls is 10 percent for lower secondary school and 3 percent for upper secondary, says Shelby Carvalho, a fellow at Harvard University who specializes in education and girls in conflict settings and has worked in Ethiopia. In the Afar Region, a predominantly Muslim state, the rate of girls’ school attendance is zero.
Refugees coming into predominantly Muslim dominated regions may have an easier time integrating, Carvalho said, but “it’s still a really difficult place for female refugees and for females in general to be in school.” Global financial remittances, often a source of education financing, are down.
While education rates are low, child marriage rates in Ethiopia, as in Somalia, are some of the highest in the world. According to the United Nations, 40 percent of girls in Ethiopia marry before the age of 18, and 15 percent before the age of 15.
Researchers say that the prevalence of early marriage is much higher in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, where 50 percent of girls marry before the age of 15 and where a girl over 15 is considered an “old maid.” Child marriage rates have dropped across all other regions of the country since 1991, but in the Somali Region, it has risen, according to a report by Unicef.
“Refugees (in Ethiopia) are hosted in some of the most remote areas of the country, which means that they and their host communities have access to very few kinds of productive livelihood opportunities,” Carvalho said. “If we think about the purpose of schooling and the way that you would motivate families to make those sacrifices and to invest in education, it would be with the promise of something on the other side of that.”
Because jobs are lacking, early marriage can be viewed as the only economic pathway. Closing schools only steers more girls away from the classroom and into marriage.Shelby Carvalho
A fellow at Harvard University
Because jobs are lacking, early marriage can be viewed as the only economic pathway. Closing schools only steers more girls away from the classroom and into marriage, she says.
In Sudan, One ‘Remarkable’ Step
Sudan is one of the few countries in the world that both creates and receives refugees. It is host to more than one million refugees, including almost 100,000 Syrians and Yemenis. At the same time, almost two million Sudanese are internally displaced.
Sudan’s ability to educate girls and prevent early marriage is only slightly better than its neighbors’.
For example, the rates of enrollment for non-displaced Sudanese girls are low: 74 percent were enrolled in primary school, dropping to 46 percent for secondary school and 17 percent for university, the latest available U.N. data show.
At the same time, about 34 percent of females are married before the age of 18. In Sudan, like Somalia, culture is a primary driver of child marriage. Sudanese law allows girls to be married after the age of 10. Girls who choose to finish school are stigmatized as unworthy of marriage, according to a 2017 report by Norwegian researchers.
Now, child advocates are hoping for a change in the child-marriage law, spurred by new legislation in July that banned female genital mutilation. Around 88 percent of women in Sudan have undergone the procedure.
The new law is a “remarkable” first step, Osman Abufatima, secretary-general of the National Council for Child Welfare, said in a video posted on Facebook. “Of course, this law by itself is not enough,” he said. “We will create a national strategy to make it a reality.”