Attorney Yasmin Abdi brings justice to the women in Somaliland
Who do you call when you need to settle a grievance? In Somalia, you’ll need to call a lawyer skilled at three justice systems: xeer or customary law, Shari’ah or law drawn from the Islamic religion, and statutory law.
Navigating these legal systems can be even more complex if you’re a woman or experiencing gender-based violence. In either case, you may not trust these systems to give you a fair outcome because they often exclude women from decision-making.
For example, under customary law, clan elders making judgments may have prior agreements with other clans that influence their decisions. A rape case may be resolved by all male clan elders who work with the rape survivor’s clan and perpetrator to reach a resolution.
Communities also lack confidence in Somalia’s justice institutions’ ability to resolve conflicts and deliver justice, leading many to seek services from the violent extremist group Al-Shabaab. This armed group has been able to address long-standing grievances that drive conflict by enforcing judgments where formal systems have failed.
In 2018, USAID launched the Expanding Access to Justice program to improve ways of addressing grievances in Somalia. The program is a partnership with several local organizations, including the Somaliland Women Lawyers Association (SWLA).
Yasmin Abdi Abdulahi, a lawyer with SWLA, helps Somaliland women with legal issues maneuver the country’s complex legal landscape.
The Making of an Advocate
Yasmin began working with SWLA as an intern during law school. It was then that she had her first exposure to how courts and the justice system in Somalia functioned. Through this experience, she learned that women’s issues were insufficiently represented in judicial systems.
She says that the objectives of SWLA are “to provide a professional and social network for newly graduated women lawyers, encourage greater participation of women lawyers through developing the potential of their role within Somaliland, promote continuing education and legal awareness for women, and advocate for and achieve justice and equality for all women.” This mandate drew Yasmin’s interest in the organization.
After graduating, Yasmin was determined to become an advocate for women in Somaliland after seeing how they were excluded from decision-making positions and underrepresented in policymaking.
Women in Somaliland “lack the required policies and laws needed for both legal protection and legal advancement. Women are not part of the Judicial Service Commission, and there are no women judges in the entire justice spectrum,” she explained.
A Path to Justice
Yasmin joined SWLA in 2015. Through her work with USAID, Yasmin trains justice promoters (SWLA also calls them community paralegals), and community volunteers on Somalia’s different legal systems.
These groups serve as frontline legal workers helping community members navigate the justice systems in Somalia. The program focuses on marginalized groups including women, ethnic minorities, the elderly, and children. But it also helps the entire community because it has led to educating men and clan elders on issues affecting women such as gender-based violence and gender norms.
According to Yasmin, this work has shown the communities of Somaliland the importance of seeking justice through the courts.
The challenges of navigating the three-justice systems are particularly apparent in gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence cases.
In all three systems, there are loopholes that often penalize the survivors while benefiting the perpetrators. This includes the intervention of male clan elders in rape cases and the lack of legal enforcement for laws governing rape.
“The lack of legal enforcement of laws for sexual and gender-based violence cases, no laws in place for sexual and gender-based violence cases, women are distrustful of the courts, and some people view legal aid as a foreign concept,” Yasmin notes.
The biggest impact of USAID’s Expanding Access to Justice program is that it has connected women to free legal services. SWLA has represented nearly 700 women, with the majority of clients being women in rural areas who don’t have access to formal justice systems.
Hope for the Future
Yasmin hopes that more women will become representatives in Parliament and the Judicial Service Commission. She has already seen more women lawyers replacing the traditional role of clan elders in resolving grievances. And she is pleased that clan elders are not threatened by her or SWLA, but rather they are cooperating and encouraging women lawyers.
She cites increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making, the protection of women and girls from gender-based violence, and improving interventions for the prevention of violence against women as additional goals for her country — like the principles of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. She also wants to see a “Somaliland, where women’s justice is considered from all angles and Somaliland women, are legally empowered and protected.”
About the Author
Eseroghene Oruma is a Communications and Outreach Specialist in the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization.
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