The UK Should Show Leadership on Sexual Violence in Somalia

A Somali woman who said she was raped by state security forces, a journalist who interviewed her, her husband, and two others who tried to assist her, have been charged with multiple crimes, including insulting a government body.
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Co-authored by Liesl Gerntholtz

A Somali woman who said she was raped by state security forces, a journalist who interviewed her, her husband, and two others who tried to assist her, have been charged with multiple crimes, including insulting a government body. They face a court hearing on February 2. The journalist is sitting in a Mogadishu prison right now. All of them -- including the woman herself -- could face years of prison in the war-torn city if they are convicted.

The new Somali government, in power since September and much feted by international donors, seems to think they can silence the discussion of sexual violence by the security forces by clamping down on women reporting rape and journalists. The UK -- a key donor to Somalia -- needs to send an urgent message to the contrary before Saturday's hearing date.

To his credit, Foreign Secretary William Hague has made tackling conflict-related sexual violence a "personal priority." He has called for international action, especially on the part of his G8 colleagues, to bring perpetrators to book and provide support and witness protection. Prime Minister David Cameron's meeting with President Hassan Sheikh Mohammed of Somalia next week is another crucial opportunity to make this case -- to underscore the travesty of this case, and to press for charges to be dropped and for meaningful investigation of sexual violence cases.

Last year, the UK announced it would spend £38 million over three years to improve the core functions of Somalia's government, including the justice sector. One of the key objectives is to deliver significant improvements in the areas of access to justice and policing. These programs will not succeed if women who seek to report rape are intimidated, paraded before the media, and publicly shamed -- or even prosecuted -- for trying to bring their attackers to justice, as has happened on this case.

Somali police, rather than investigating this case, are expending their very limited financial resources on discrediting this woman's character, mounting claims that she and the journalist were plotting to tarnish the image of the government for profit. The Somali government needs to hear clearly that they are tarnishing their own image in their handling of this case.

And there is anything but profit in it for the brave women trying to report rape around the world. As Human Rights Watch recently found in Washington D.C., women reporting sexual violence are often treated callously by police, shamed and treated with skepticism by the very institutions that should protect them and secure their access to justice. In Colombia, victims of sexual violence told Human Rights Watch about being asked humiliating questions about their sexual history and what they were wearing by police officials who did not want to process their cases. When women do persist, legal systems can fail them. In India a recent commission concluded that that country lacks the political will to enforce their own laws on sexual violence and recommended numerous steps to improve the situation.

Few could doubt that reporting rape to the authorities takes courage and persistence everywhere, but this is especially true in a dangerous and politically unstable country like Somalia, with little recent history of rule of law. Women reporting rape need to know that their cases will be investigated and that they will receive the services they need. They should never fear they will be charged with crimes.

Silencing journalists for conducting an interview about sexual violence is a serious misstep, too. Journalists working to expose human rights abuses should be able to interview people, corroborate information, and report on events as they see them. Sixteen journalists have been killed in Somalia in the last year, and now one is imprisoned for doing his job.

The UK should make clear to the new Somali government that its financial support to Somalia is contingent on respecting freedom of expression. International leaders have often condemned the killings of Somali journalists and called on the government to do more to protect them but, so far, donors have not spoken publicly about this case.

William Hague and the UK government is uniquely placed to speak out, condemn the treatment of this woman and the journalist who interviewed her, and push the authorities to drop the charges. Doing so will be a concrete illustration of his pioneering efforts to bring conflict-related sexual violence to an end.

Maria Burnett is a senior Africa researcher and Liesl Gerntholtz is women's rights director at Human Rights Watch.

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