On 10 January 2013, Somali police detained a journalist after he interviewed a woman who reported she was raped by members of the Somali security forces some months earlier. The alleged rape victim was also detained. Thousands of women are raped every day in the context of conflict, but very few find the courage to come forward as this woman did. Instead of investigating those who allegedly assaulted her, it is the woman and the journalist who tried to tell her story who are now on trial in Somalia. This is completely unacceptable.
Numerous stories have been written about this rape case that allegedly began in a camp for internally displaced persons outside Mogadishu. The reporter had yet to publish the interview in any media outlet before his arrest, but the Government of Somalia contends that the woman fabricated her story and that she was offered money in an effort to tarnish its reputation. They base this partially on the fact that the woman, under interrogation when initially in custody, recanted her story. She was released, but it is telling that despite the hostile and conservative environment in which she found herself, she immediately resurfaced her case with the Attorney General upon her release, stating that she recanted only because she was threatened while in custody.
As of now, the woman and the journalist have been charged under Article 269 of the Somali penal code with offending the honor of a state institution, which carries a jail term of several years. They, along with the woman’s husband and two people who acted as intermediaries, also face charges linked to bribery. Only the woman, who is breastfeeding, is not currently in prison, with the trial set for today [2 February].
The authorities have a legal and moral obligation to investigate every report of rape. However, putting the victim and those who encouraged her to come forward on trial sends a clear message not just to women in Somalia, but to women around the world, that they should keep quiet or face the wrath of the State that is supposed to protect them. These actions also have a chilling effect on journalists, when one who tried to shine a light on the alarming number of sexual assaults in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Somalia is arrested.
The United Nations has confirmed that between January and November 2012, 1,700 women were raped in IDP camps in and around Mogadishu. We know that this represents a fraction of actual attacks as many survivors of rape do not have access to medical facilities for examinations, or are too afraid or ashamed to report sexual violence.
Regardless of the facts of this particular case, by criminalizing women who allege they have been raped, the nascent Somali government has reinforced the culture of silence and stigma surrounding sexual violence, and emboldened perpetrators and would-be perpetrators who commit this crime with impunity and the knowledge that they will be protected by the inaction of the State and the shame of their victims.
It is time to change that terrible equation. It is time for governments to take ownership of the very real and damaging problem of sexual violence in conflict. Only by acknowledging that there is a problem and taking active steps to address it will we finally begin to break what has long been called history’s greatest silence. My office and the entire United Nations system are ready to assist states with the capacity building measures necessary to tackle the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence, but we must first start with the premise that reporting rape is no criminal offense; not going after the perpetrators who commit this crime is.
Today the eyes of the world are upon Somalia. The Government of Somalia has expressed its commitment to fighting sexual violence in all its forms; now is the time to turn these pledges into action.
Zainab Hawa Bangura is the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.