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.