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. Naciima Saed Salah went to the north-eastern town of Qardho in Puntland to look at women’s participation in local government.

“When I first entered politics, I was nervous because I was new to government work,” says Maryam Abdi Ali who has a seat on Qardho local council in Puntland’s Karar region. She was especially anxious about joining the council because of its reputation for being a difficult environment for women to work in.

“The UN started training us soon after we were elected as councillors on 26 October 2021,” says Ms Ali. “It really helped in terms of teaching us about our roles and responsibilities, from how to do all aspects of the work and how to best serve the electorate.”

The training was part of the support the UN Joint Programme on Local Governance (JPLG) has been giving council members in the 14 districts of Puntland where it has been working with the regional administration to decentralise government.

For the past five years, the JPLG has been training council staff on how best to provide public services, plan budgets and resolve disputes, especially those related to land.

It has also trained councillors on how to work as a team and how to maintain good relations amongst themselves. Members of Qardho council said that since being elected in October 2021 there has not been any major dispute within the body.

Another woman on the council is Maryan Abdi Barre. Although she says the training helped her in terms of learning about what it means to be a councillor, significant challenges remain for women in local government.

“I decided to go into local politics because I wanted to empower women and enable their voices to be heard,” says Ms Barre. “I had no knowledge of politics so it was good to learn from the JPLG how to do my work and how to resolve conflicts.”

“But local councils are being destroyed by men. There are not enough women in politics at local, regional and national levels. The only way to stop male arrogance and prejudice is to have more women on councils, in parliament and government.”

Ms Barre believes that increasing the number of women in local government will lead to a more peaceful environment. “If more seats are occupied by women there will be fewer conflicts because women are more sensitive and patient than men.”

Asha Khadar Abdi is another one of the nine women sitting on Qardho’s 33 member council. She says the JPLG training was useful but that significant difficulties remain for female councillors.

“Being involved in politics is a risky business in Somalia, whether you are a male or female,” she says. “But it is especially difficult for women because it is unsafe for us to move around alone. We need security and vehicles but we have no money to pay for them. We would like the regional government to provide the funds. If it is unable to do so, perhaps the UN or NGOs could contribute.”

Nimco Farah who works for the JPLG in Puntland believes the training for local councillors has helped female members overcome some of the challenges they face.

“We have strengthened the councillors’ capacity to work as a result of several weeks of training that will conclude this year,” she says. “We have raised women’s awareness and taught female councillors how to improve their public speaking which they are currently not good at. They also need to learn how to raise their voices when resolving disputes in the regions they represent. We have trained them how to give back to their communities and how to advocate for their country.”

Ms Farah says the fact that councillors are not paid is a major challenge. They are supposed to receive salaries from the regional administration but, despite promises, have not received any money since being elected to the councils more than a year ago. At present they are basically working as volunteers.

She says the JPLG plans to do more to help the women overcome their particular difficulties which she hopes will make them more confident and motivated to do their work.

“We want to encourage women and girls, not just on the councils but in society as a whole. I believe we are making progress in educating women about local politics and encouraging more female representation on the councils,” says Ms Farah.

She says politics is not just the preserve of men. “We want more women to stand for seats on local councils,” she says. “We want all Somali women to play a part in the election process, to cast their votes and take an interest in politics.”

“During the three local council elections held last year, 23 of the 87 members voted onto the bodies were women. More local elections are due to be held in Puntland where we hope to encourage more women to take part, both in terms of standing for election and of voting in the polls,” she says.

It is a sign of progress that more than a quarter of the members of the three councils are women.

As the female councillors in Qardho said, the support and training provided by the JPLG have been key both in terms of improving their confidence and skills, and in encouraging more female participation in local politics. But they say they need even more targeted help because of the unique challenges they face as women.