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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


Somalia the Untold Story ? the war through the eyes of Somali women
Judith Gardner and Judy El Bushra (eds.)

London, Sterling: CIIR and Pluto Press, 2004, 257pp, PB, 15.99,
ISBN 07453 2208 5
ISBN 07453 2209 3 (HB)


This collection begins with an account of the civil war in Somalia, which at its height in 1992 is estimated to have cost 500,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million people as a result of the fighting and subsequent famine. The book is divided into two sections, ?Women?s experiences of the war? and ?Women?s responses to the war?. Key themes in part one include the normative status of women and girls in Somalia, the loss and slaughter of men and boys, and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Part two moves on to examine among other themes the changing role of men and women at the family level, women as refugees, the role of women in mobilising peace and in political participation.

The book is rich with translations of native Somali women?s poetry, the explanation of which reiterates the dominance of patriarchal accounts of conflict. Women harnessed verse for many number of practical functions including as a means of peace-building and female empowerment, yet their poetry as with their narratives rarely reached the public forum. ??This of course does not mean that there were no women poets; but the reality is that nobody, neither foreigners nor the Somalis themselves, bothered to view women?s literature and the themes they talked about as important enough to be recorded? (xiv). This collection challenges the notion that women?s experiences are not important enough to be recorded by including contributions from a range of Somali women from researchers and academics, to health professionals and artists. Whilst the authors acknowledge that as educated women these women represent the minority of Somali women (a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world) they claim that these women?s experiences of the conflict are common to hundreds of thousands of women from all social classes.

Overall I found the style and content of this collection extremely comprehensive and was particularly impressed by the inclusion of a detailed chronology of the conflict, a map of Somalia, as well as a useful glossary of Somali terms. This collection challenges traditional constructs of the female as passive by including accounts of women providing funding for and actively engaging in armed conflict.

Sexual violence during armed conflict is a phenomenon now widely acknowledged following the landmark decision in 1996 of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) to include sexual violence as a war crime in response to the Bosnian conflict. Unfortunately for the women and girls of Somalia this acknowledgement came too late, as this chapter outlines the scale and brutality of the attacks that were carried out with relative impunity. Chapter three on war crimes against women and girls demonstrates how the conflict practically eradicated the protection within clans of women and children leaving them subject to sexual violence on an unprecedented scale. Whilst all women and girls were open to such attack, it was the most vulnerable minorities and those without clan affiliation who suffered the brunt of the violence. The widespread use of sexual violence in the Somali conflict is particularly brutal due to the almost ubiquitous practice of female genital mutilation that can cause severe and irreparable injuries. The pandemic of sexual violence can in part account for the fact that women and girls accounted for approximately 80% of refugees between 1991-1993. The chapter states that many of the women and girls who fled as a result of sexual violence were later raped again as refugees. Testimonies demonstrate that the majority of attacks were carried out by armed gangs, often involving multiple rapes, some carried out in front of husbands, relatives, friends or children, most involved physical violence and robbery. While the accounts of conflict are vivid and at times shocking, the collection is laced with stories of survival, perseverance, empowerment and hope.

The authors succeed in their aim of contributing to an understanding of not only the particular conflict in Somalia but also of conflict as a phenomenon. This collection adds significantly to existing literature on conflict and peace studies by providing invaluable personal accounts of women?s experiences of conflict in a way that emphasises the impact of war on individuals, families and communities. The use of personal accounts has proved vital in presenting an insight into the culture of the different and often opposing clans and the affect which conflict has had on women?s status in the family and community in general. The book contributes to both sides of the debate on whether women experience conflict differently from men. As result, this book will appeal to academics, researchers and scholars with an interest in peace and conflict studies, gender issues and political participation.


Sorcha McKenna, PhD Research Fellow, Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster



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