Women, conflict and the environment in Somali society
Somali women have been at the forefront of environmental activism since the early 1990s. Two of these inspirational leaders are Shukri Ismail Bandare and Fatima Jibrell. They have both founded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help local communities protect their environment and use natural resources more sustainably. The vital role of women and gender equality in environmental protection has been at the core of their work. In the face of civil war, a fragile arid/semi-arid environment, poverty and a traditional patriarchal society, the achievements of these women and their colleagues are immense. In interviews in late 2014 and early 2015 for Friends of the Earth, they contributed their experiences and ideas on gender equality and environmental sustainability.
Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare has served as the minister for environment of Somaliland since 2013. Previous to her political appointment, she was an active campaigner on environmental issues and founded a local NGO, Candlelight for Health, Education and Environment. The charity continues to deliver training, education and healthcare programmes with communities across Somaliland. Shukri served six years on the first Election Commission in Somaliland as the only woman and participated in three successful elections when Somaliland was moving from a clan-based system to a multiparty system. She explains her motivations for her work:
‘The charity was born in 1995; we saw there was a real need. The Somaliland people were in the midst of war – having suffered the onslaught of the [Siad] Barre forces they were now experiencing a period of great instability involving inter-clan wars. There were no schools for children of internally displaced people (IDPs) and they were growing up with so much fear and hostilities, we didn’t want another generation lost to the war.
‘We set up a school. With education, we soon realised there was a dire need for a health awareness campaign and so we decided to run campaigns including the dangers involved with FGM [female genital mutilation]. The conditions of the camp made us see how important sanitation was – and the environment as a whole – and so began our work on environmental hazards. I had a lot of help from people and the charity was by no means a one-woman show. The charity is one the biggest NGOs in Somaliland and its focus continues to be on the environment.’
Fatima Jibrell is the founder of the international NGO Adeso: African Development Solutions (previously known as Horn Relief), whose mission is to work with communities to create environments in which Africans can thrive. In 2014 Fatima received the Champions of Earth award from the UN Environment Programme for her outstanding contribution to conservation. She talks about her experiences as a child in Somalia and returning as an adult:
‘I was born to a pastoral nomadic family in Somalia in 1947 and until I was seven years old I lived in an area that was savannah-like, with lions, leopards, all kinds of wildlife. I first visited Somalia again about thirty years ago – the land that I had remembered as a lush green savannah was total desert, with only huge sandstorms blowing. So I became interested in seeing if it could be brought back to life. After the civil war it seemed the best time to help people. There was an influx of people from big cities like Mogadishu coming to my area. I wanted to see if I could support them in any way to understand the environment, so they don’t trash it further – that was my main reason to come back.’
Trees for people and the environment
One of the main causes of Somali environmental degradation has been deforestation and desertification – in particular from people cutting down trees to make charcoal for cooking fuel.
Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare explains: ‘The environment is the most essential necessity in our lives as we depend one hundred per cent on it. Without a good, healthy environment it is impossible to exist as a people. The effects of [deforestation] on a land such as ours, which can be described as arid or semi-arid land, are acute. The scarcity of forests and woodlands means any loss of trees has significant environmental deficits.
‘The trees we have in mountainous areas are our equivalent of forests and they are fast being eroded. In a large part this is due to the lack of education and awareness people have about the effects of cutting trees; also some people do not have alternative livelihoods other than cutting trees to make charcoal. The people remain reluctant to use alternative means of energy due to many factors and this continues to fuel the use of coal.’
‘We are content to cut down a tree but not plant one in its place. The need for trees remains the same yet that need is being unmet with our current attitudes.’
The Somali rural population is traditionally pastoral and nomadic, moving with their livestock to find grazing pastures. These communities depend upon a healthy natural environment for their survival in the hot, dry climate with irregular rainfall.
Fatima Jibrell recalls the traditional respect for trees: ‘There were all kinds of laws that almost all Somalis, even those who have not been pastoralists, know about. At that time nobody dared to cut a tree more than one or two branches – they will trim and take one branch and go to another tree and take one branch, and so on, to make a fence for their temporary homestead to protect their livestock for the night from lions and hyenas that could easily prey on their livestock. People, usually women, made ropes and other materials to construct their house and this was mounted upon camels when they moved. That house was all made of trees, but they would take part of the tree bark and not actually skin the whole tree – which they do now because they don’t care about the tree.
‘I remember the training that my mother was given as a child, I remember her telling me: if you want to take off the skin of the tree to make a rope, you take just a little bit off so that you can make what you want without killing the tree. I knew from that time that we needed the trees because I was eating fruit from them, we were using them to lie down [in the shade] when the sun was out, so it was well understood! My mother expected me to be a pastoralist like her and taught me to use the environment.’
Conflict and the environment
One of Fatima’s most notable accomplishments is securing a prohibition on the export of charcoal from north-east Somalia (since 1998 an autonomous region of Somalia known as Puntland), which was driving deforestation. She united people and groups, and tirelessly advocated for an end to the charcoal trade that used the region’s acacia trees to make charcoal destined for the Middle East. Through her advocacy and coordination, the Puntland government prohibited the export of charcoal through Bosaso port in 2002. Fatima also recognised the need to find an alternative fuel for household cooking; so she co-founded Sun Fire Cooking to promote the use of the butterfly-design parabolic solar cooker.
Illegal charcoal exports from Somalia continue today and have been recognised by the UN Security Council as a significant source of revenue for the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. The work of Fatima and others has put this issue on the international agenda and highlighted its humanitarian, security, environmental and economic consequences.
‘For example,’ says Fatima, ‘the urban youth are being lured into the rural areas through payments to make charcoal, yet the international community are not prioritising the environment or youth rehabilitation in their efforts.’
There are deep-rooted links between the environment and conflict in Somalia and Somaliland, as people are so reliant on their environment for their livelihoods, cultural identity and security. Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare stresses this point: ‘Environmental issues play a key role in conflict in Somaliland, I would go as far as to say such issues play a daily role in conflict situations across Somaliland. Confrontations frequently occur over disputes over grazing lands, watering holes and land that has been sealed off by individuals for private use. All these problems demonstrate the key role land features in the lives of Somalis, their existence remains tied to the land as with their nomadic forefathers.’
Challenges of environmental governance
Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare reflects on her experience as a minister: ‘Our Ministry of the Environment is an emerging ministry; a lot of our efforts have been on training and building our staff capacity to facilitate an adequate working environment. Though the ministry was first created in 1997, it has not received the same level of attention or focus as the ministries for education or health, and so it has been somewhat neglected. The challenges we face within our ministry are overwhelming; we are constantly under pressure due to budgets and because we know that time is of the essence where environmental emergencies are concerned. We are facing too many environmental emergencies including prolonged droughts, flash floods across dry river beds and the increasing number of industrial factories, which require preventative measures to ensure industrial waste is properly disposed of. We face all the challenges associated with a post-conflict society but I keep telling myself: “Rome was not built in a day”. Since we are all trying.’
Fatima Jibrell points out the challenges and opportunities for better environmental governance: ‘Before the war and the collapse of the Somali state, there was a whole department of environment that would protect the trees. Tourists were not allowed to park everywhere. We were not allowed to consume as much as we wanted. Today it is still a challenge! Sixty per cent of jobs in Somalia come from a pastoral environment. There is no opportunity to help Somalis, particularly young people from pastoral families, to get involved in environmental or marine conservation. We have the longest coastline in Africa – that could provide a job for everyone.’
Women and the environment
‘Women’s livelihoods are entwined with the environment,’ explains Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare. ‘As a traditionally pastoral-nomadic society, it is the women who herd the livestock, they are the first to witness changes in our environment. Even in the urban setting of Hargeisa there are women (many of whom are the family’s breadwinners) selling goat’s milk and camel’s milk from their livestock. We are a people dependent on the environment, especially water as there is no life without water. If we do not act against environmental degradation, women will be the first casualties of any environmental disasters that result from limited actions from ourselves and the international community at large.
‘Women are intimately concerned with the changes in weather pattern and rainfall, they have to personally calculate how long to walk to get water, how far to take their herd for watering and pasture. Those of us in government are also aware of the challenges facing such women. We constantly keep ourselves updated on the areas where drought is present in order to send whatever reinforcements we can.
‘I think equality is not necessarily the same in everyone’s eyes. As a woman I am aware of my physical limitations to that of a man and similarly I am sure a man could not match my resilience as a woman. Equality has taken on this forceful, confrontational connotation and I would like to move away from that and instead promote a complementarity between the sexes. As for the planet I don’t believe we can save the planet without first creating a fair and harmonious society for humanity.’
Fatima Jibrell sees the struggle for gender equality as central to environmental protection: ‘There’s a very strong connection between the marginalisation of women and youth and the environmental degradation in Somalia. The degradation is making poverty even worse for so many people; politics and gender inequalities are at the heart of it.
‘It’s not possible to achieve environmental sustainability without gender equality, because women work in the environment, they put food on the table, bring water. Women who are doing all this and looking after children have no chance to do anything else, to get involved in politics. They are carrying the whole society on their back.’
Gender in society and politics
Women in Somali society are traditionally seen as potential peace-builders and peace emissaries, able to facilitate communication between warring groups. Women have been at the forefront of local and national peace-building across the Somali regions since the civil war. However, time and again women have been excluded from peace talks, or permitted only as observers on the sidelines rather than as equal participants with men. Unlike women, young men have no traditional role to play in conflict resolution, but like women, young men are marginalised and kept on the sidelines during peace talks.
In principle, the constitutions of the Somaliland and Puntland governments and the Federal Government of Somalia all provide for equality between men and women in relation to political participation. But in fact, all three governments are almost exclusively male forums and promises of quotas for women are variously rejected and flouted. This is despite international conventions, such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), which calls for women’s participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction.
From 2012 to 2014, Adeso ran a project to promote gender equality, women’s empowerment and political participation in Somalia to foster the development of an inclusive, transparent and accountable society. This project, Promoting Women’s Political Participation in Somalia, provided training to more than three hundred female civil society representatives and councillors in political representation, advocacy, understanding of gender equality, and the role of women in peace-building. It also offered both technical support and capacity-building to the Ministry of Women Development and Family Affairs (MOWDAFA).
The project also facilitated the construction of Community Women Centres in the four target districts of Badhan, Bocame, Carmo and Xarfo. These centres continue to be a resource for local women in Puntland, giving them a place to consult, report and share their views and experiences. The targeted women in civil society, local councillors, teachers and community leaders in the four districts learned skills to challenge and change social attitudes and cultural factors that constrain their lives, and advocate on behalf of their communities.
Fatima believes that this is the future: ‘Unless men talk to women and youth, government will not improve and women will not move forward. I hope the United States and other countries that are supporting the [Federal] Government of Somalia will talk to women because each nation comes and talks to male politicians. We need every nation that comes to Somalia to talk to women separately and equally – that’s how you start equality.’
Shukri Bandare shows how political and social empowerment are intricately linked: ‘There was a time fifteen to sixteen years ago when the question of gender was not on the agenda; many in our society were looking at us [women in politics] as though we had committed an unspeakable taboo. But I believe we have come a long way since then. We live in a rigidly patriarchal society riddled with contradictions. On the one hand we are witnessing more girls in schools, all the way to universities, but in the end that girl is still supposed to conform to the role of stay-at-home mum. Many parents will entertain the idea of their daughters having an office job but entering politics, especially at an official decision-making level, you can be sure to face every hurdle they can throw your way.
‘There have been attempts to set up a female quota in the House of Representatives but unfortunately that bill did not pass. Nonetheless, there are prominent women’s associations including Nagaad Network, which is an umbrella group of many grassroots women’s organisations in Somaliand. As a founding member of this network, my ministry continues to foster a close relationship with the network in the promotion of greater women’s empowerment in society and politics.
‘We must find a platform that encourages discussion and an open dialogue on the environmental issues we face and that is what I want to be part of, the start of that conversation.’