When it comes to the role of women in society, Somalia receives a great deal of negative attention. Given that the country has suffered from years of conflict, and is currently enduring a food crisis, it certainly is a difficult, sometimes dangerous environment where women can be left vulnerable.
When foreigners think of Somali women, it’s easy to label them as victims, but that is really an oversimplification. Contrary to popular belief, there are women in Somalia who are able to rise above the difficult circumstances that surround them. There are many strong, capable, inspiring women who are making a positive difference today in this troubled country. Fartun Adan is one such woman.
Born and raised in Somalia, Fartun was a young mother caring for three daughters, living in Mogadishu. In the late 1980s her husband Elman had a successful electronics business in the city. Then as now, the country was locked in conflict.
As the fighting spread from the countryside to the capital, there were few job opportunities so many unemployed teenagers joined local militias, fighting as child soldiers.
“It was considered normal for a 14 year old to walk around with a gun,” Fartun says of those turbulent days.
With so much conflict, many men fled Mogadishu and the city was left with a shortage of skilled labour. So Elman began to take in those teenage child soldiers and retrain them. Providing them with an education and job training, he reintegrated them into the community. As the fighting continued in subsequent years, he formally established the Elman Peace Center.
“People still come up to me today and tell me with tears in their eyes how my husband made a big difference in their life,” Fartun said.
Despite their good work, not everyone was pleased with Elman’s efforts to reintegrate child soldiers. In 1996, one of the warlords in Somalia didn’t like the idea of his young soldiers leaving the militias, and getting regular jobs.
So he ordered Elman killed.
After Fartun’s husband was murdered, his family took over the Elman Peace Center’s operations, leaving her with nothing. As a widow without means, Fartun left the country as a refugee and moved with her daughters to Canada.
In her absence half a world away, the Elman Peace Center’s programmes declined. As the years as went by, Fartun raised her three daughters in Canada where they received a good education. But safe as she was there, Fartun missed Mogadishu, and she still wanted to help her countrymen who continued to suffer there.
So in 2007, Fartun returned to Mogadishu.
Taking over the helm of the organization, she rebuilt their vital programmes and extended the name to “The Elman Peace and Human Rights Center”. With so many child soldiers in the country, there was certainly a need for their services.
“They believe the only way they can make money is by having a gun, by fighting for other people,” Fartun says of these misguided youth. Obtaining funding from UNICEF, her small agency was once again educating former child soldiers, giving them job training, and reintegrating them back into society.
“We have former child soldiers who are now teachers,” Fartun says of their graduates. “Many in the city – the electricians, mechanics – they have done our job training.”
Then last year Somalia was struck by famine, and hundreds of thousands of starving people poured into Mogadishu. Living in crowded camps protected only with makeshift shelters left many people vulnerable. Reports of rape among displaced women rose alarmingly high.
Continuing to advocate for those in need, Fartun sought a new avenue to help these women. She became one of the founders of Sister Somalia, a new agency providing support for victims of gender based violence.
“Sister Somalia is a programme we created for rape assistance,” Fartun said. “The rapes were going on, but nobody was talking about it.” Since then the new organization has been providing women with counselling, relocation to safer housing, and aid to start their own businesses.
With so many issues confronting Somalia, Fartun has even been advocating for her people beyond her country’s borders. Lobbying in partnership with Oxfam, she has spoken before the African Union, advocating for human rights. She has also met with representatives of the European Union and spoke before the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.
The path to end the conflict in Somalia will not be an easy one, and rebuilding this long suffering country will not be accomplished by men alone. The women of Somalia have a role to play in Somalia’s future, a vital part of the country’s recovery.
In the meantime Fartun and many other strong women in Somalia will be there, making a difference. They will continue the struggle, bringing aid to those in need, leading former child soldiers to better lives, and advocating for a better future.