MOGADISHU, Somalia – Knowing what she knows today, Zeynab Bile Abdinoor would have done things differently.
She would have looked for more witnesses.
She would have asked about the strange-tasting milk the girls said they were given.
She would not have asked them point-blank, “Were you raped?”
She would have let them do the talking.
A Somali lawyer in her late 20s, Abdinoor recently took on a case that made her realize how little she knew about interviewing rape survivors – and which highlighted the severe limitations of Somalia’s sexual assault laws. Her clients were two girls, aged 12 and 14. They said they were snatched from a wedding in Mogadishu in November 2016 and held in the bush for two days and two nights, where they were raped by at least two young men.
The 14-year-old told Abdinoor that she knew one of the accused. When questioned by police, the boy said the sex had been consensual. When the girl heard this, she fainted, Abdinoor says.
In Somalia, the prosecution needs to prove that penetration occurred in order to secure a conviction.
Getting a medical certificate that attests to this can prove difficult. Until recently, there was only one doctor, at one hospital in the capital, who was legally empowered to give out such certificates. (Human Right Watch researcher Laetitia Bader, who spoke to the country’s attorney general, says courts now accept records from other hospitals.)
This doctor issued the girls with a signed certificate that said intercourse had taken place, allowing the girls to take their accused rapists to court. But there would be no conviction.
During the trial, Abdinoor says the girls were questioned in separate rooms (in Somalia, details of sexual assault can’t be discussed in public courtrooms).
By the end of the session, both had recanted their original statements, and the boys were let go. Abdinoor says it’s conceivable the 14-year-old had consensual sex with the boy whom she knew. But the 12-year-old had also been penetrated – what happened to her over those two days in November?
“So few cases go to court, in part, because of poverty.”
When applied in the state court, Somali law on sexual violence is based on an Italian colonial-era penal code, written in the 1930s. Conviction is dependent on the provision of medical and police certificates, and survivor testimony is not prioritized. Moreover, Human Rights Watch says there is no agreement over the legal age of consent in Somalia.
Statistics about rape in Somalia vary wildly, and the lack of infrastructure, combined with the rarity of reporting, means there is no way to get a firm grasp on its scope.
The Somalia Protection Cluster, a consortium of NGOs working in the country, recorded 1,599 cases of gender-based violence between September 2016 and February 2017. In 2015, the attorney general’s office recorded 69 rape cases, 55 of which resulted in a conviction, according to Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), a firm specializing in human rights. Back in 2013, the U.N. recorded 800 cases of gender-based violence in the first six months of the year – in Mogadishu alone.
In a country where survivors themselves believe that “rape is normal,” women’s rights advocates say these statistics represent a fraction of the sexual assaults that actually occur in Somalia.
“I think so few cases go to court, in part, because of poverty,” said Deqo Olad, a project coordinator at the Somali Women Development Center, the Mogadishu-based human rights advocacy group where Abdinoor works. “People don’t have time to deal with the case.”
A bill to address sexual assault more comprehensively is currently wending its way to parliament. The proposed legislation will place more weight on survivor testimony and less emphasis on the doctor’s certificate.
In anticipation of the potential new law, and to teach Somali lawyers how to gather evidence that could be used in domestic and international courts, Legal Action Worldwide, which is providing technical support for the bill, is running a series of training sessions inside Mogadishu International Airport. The fortified airport is the most secure building in Somalia.
It’s at these sessions that Abdinoor is learning what she might do differently next time. The attendees, most of them men, are being trained in gathering testimony from survivors and witnesses, using video to collect evidence and how to build a story to tell in court.
“Evidence collected today may be vital for access to justice for victims and building a transparent and accountable justice system in Somalia in the future.”
In such a conservative culture, lawyers – both men and women – aren’t comfortable naming explicit body parts. At one point in the training, attendees practiced saying “penis,” “vagina,” “anal” and “penetration,” out loud in both English and Somali. While this detail might seem small, closing such gaps fortifies survivors’ individual narratives, as well as the national legal system.
LAW wants to train the lawyers to collect more evidence than is necessary under the national penal code. Not only will that build stronger cases, such testimony can also be archived so there’s enough information for the country’s lawyers to adjust to the evolving Somali legal system.
“Evidence collected today may be vital for access to justice for victims and building a transparent and accountable justice system in Somalia in the future,” Antonia Mulvey, LAW’s executive director, says.
It’s a positive step forward, but Olad says she has toned down her expectations of rapid progress on sexual assault in Somalia.
“Men think they can turn a girl’s life upside down on a whim,” she says. “Training someone can change the interview process, but it’s not going to change the culture.”