Special Bilan Media series on the United Nations’ efforts to improve local governance across Somalia 

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Effective local governance is an essential part of rebuilding Somalia’s physical infrastructure and social mechanisms, much of which have been destroyed during decades of conflict and instability. The Joint United Nations Programme on Local Governance (JPLG) has played a key role in improving the way government is run at city and state levels. It helps to build roads, clinics, schools and other facilities, train government staff and improve the political representation of marginalised groups, including women. Journalists from Bilan Media have travelled across Somalia to assess the progress of some of JPLG’s work. Kiin Hasan Fakat went to the town of Hudur in South West State’s Bakool region where they found women are starting to make a mark in local politics.

The United Nations Joint Programme on Local Governance (JPLG) has been working with the Somali government to create strong, organised and representative district councils as part of the effort to improve effectiveness and openness in local governance.

Hudur district council in South West State’s Bakool region was among the first to be established. It has been receiving support from the JPLG.

The first district council election was held in 2017. This was the first time people had elected candidates to official posts since the formation of South West State.

The electorate demonstrated that it had the power and confidence to vote despite Hudur being largely cut off from other parts of South West State and the rest of Somalia at the time. The town was occupied by Al Shabaab from 2013 to 2014 and continued to suffer instability and regular attacks.

However, there was a problem.

Despite the UN stressing the importance of female representation on the council, not a single woman was elected to the body.

It is Somalia’s stated aim to have at least 30 percent of political positions occupied by women. But this has not happened, mainly due to prevailing social norms and a lack of awareness about the crucial role women play in politics from the local to the national level.

The situation has improved since the first election, in part due to the intervention of the JPLG.

The UNDP’s Khalif Aden, who works in South West State, said JPLG has been working to build the capacity of the regional Ministry of Interior, with national consultants training staff so they are able to make inroads into decentralising government. It also provides financial and technical support.

The poll was held with the support of the JPLG and the South West Ministry of Internal Affairs. After the debacle of the 2017 poll, when no women were voted onto the council, the ministry and the UN worked hard to raise awareness about the importance of female representation.

During the election on August 8 this year, five women were voted onto the district council. Although this was fewer than originally hoped for, it was a sign of limited progress. The presence of the women on the new council shows that the awareness campaign made an impact although there is still a way to go.

Mr Aden of the UNDP said a priority was to increase the number of women on the council. He said the JPLG was working hard to bring on board the support of women in the local community so that they could contribute to awareness raising, advocate for more women to be represented in politics, perhaps by reserving some seats only for women, and ensure that policies and legislation defend women’s rights.

One of the women was elected to the powerful position of second deputy commissioner of Hudur District Council. Rahmo Noor Adan says women faced unique challenges before, during and after the election. She says Somali traditional culture is still very much opposed to women’s involvement in local politics and that she hopes her senior position on the council will help challenge these prejudices.

According to Ms Adan, one of the problems is that women who marry outside their clans are blocked from running in elections. “If a woman marries someone who is not from her clan, her family will not allow her to compete for a political position because they say she will represent the interests of her husband’s clan, not her own.”

Ms Adan says finance is another major problem facing women in local politics.

“Even though members of district councils are supposed to receive a salary, they often don’t get paid. At the same time, they are expected to pay for their own security which is essential as anyone involved in politics in this region is at heightened risk.”

When the women’s complaints about not being paid were put to the UNDP’s Mr Aden, he said, “The JPLG is committed to support the female councillors in terms of building their capacity so they are aware of their rights in local government, they advocate for higher female representation and they ensure they have a female-friendly workplace.”

The chairman of Hudur local council’s social affairs office, Dahabo Ibrahim Mohamed, says the election of women onto the council had helped change attitudes in the region.

“Now that there are female members on the council, our community sees how effective and powerful women can be and how we can make a difference to everybody’s lives. They are now happier about women having political positions. I hope they vote more of us onto the council next time around.”

Another challenge facing women in local politics is their domestic responsibilities.

One of the councillors is a young mother, Faduma Mohammed Ibrahim. She says she now has a double workload as her duties as a mother are the same as they were before she was voted onto the council.

“I have five small children. Once I finish my work at the district office, I go home and finish my domestic chores. This is not a problem for me. I am determined to carry on in both roles.”

Although women face unique challenges and are still not represented adequately on Hudur’s district council, there have been significant gains since the 2017 election. Conservative attitudes towards women prevail, but the five female local councillors are blazing a trail for women and proving that politics is not the sole preserve of men.

It is hoped that in the next election in five years’ time, at least 30% of the council will be made up of women, reaching Somalia’s target for female representation in politics.