The political space for women in Somalia increased significantly during the electoral process in 2016, as a result of intense advocacy efforts by women leaders, political candidates, the Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development, the ad-hoc electoral implementation teams and international partners.

Through dialogue and pressure linked to its financial support of the electoral process, Sweden was one of the main international partners promoting the increased representation of women in parliament, with a target of 30 percent. While this benchmark was never reached, the lower house now consists of 24 percent women—10 percent more than in 2012. This was indeed a major step forward, which now needs to translate into greater opportunity and voice for women in Somali politics and society.

In September 2016 Somalia’s National Leadership Forum (NLF), consisting of the country’s federal and regional leaders, decided that 30 percent of the parliamentary seats should be reserved for women. This decision stemmed from previous commitments made – but never implemented – by successive Somali governments. It was reinforced as a result of robust advocacy, primarily from the so-called C6+ group, in which Sweden is included together with UNSOM, IGAD, AU, EU, Ethiopia, UK, US and Italy. The following months and throughout the long and difficult electoral process the Swedish Embassy intensified its political dialogue and stepped up its financial support to enable the implementation of this ambitious target. Repeated meetings and telephone conversations with regional leaders, local electoral officials as well as individual clan leaders were necessary in order to maintain the pressure to uphold the NLF commitment.

Asha Gelle Dirie, the Chair of the Goodwill Ambassadors.

Asha Gelle Dirie, the Chair of the Goodwill Ambassadors: “This is a substantial and unprecedented achievement for Somali women”.

Somalia’s president also appointed an informal committee, the so-called Goodwill Ambassadors, consisting of women leaders drawn from all clans and all regional states. This group played a key role in formulating and driving a detailed strategy for women’s increased participation and representation, down to the level of individual sub-sub-clans and individual parliamentary seats, identifying which seats, at a minimum, had to be reserved for women.

Sweden was one of the main international partners promoting the 30 percent  campaign through robust political dialogue and, indeed, pressure, tightly linked to its financial support of the electoral process. Future Swedish financial support to the regions occasionally also figured in those discussions. After all, it makes sense to invest more in those areas that are committed to a more equal representation, than in those that do not.

Early on, the Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development organized the first ever national conference for Somali women parliamentary candidates and supporters. A 30 percent “Headquarter Situation Room” was established in Mogadishu to coordinate and harmonize the various efforts, and hotlines were set up for the different regions to provide women candidates, all too often subjected to discrimination and harassment, with a point of contact for information purposes as well as a place to inform about possible threats and risks.

As stated by Minister Zahra Samantar, “the 30 percent campaign has created a significant amount of resentment and hostility towards women. There are still many sub-clans that strongly believe that women have no place in politics and governance. It will take time to change those rigid and outdated beliefs. However, the momentum caused by the 30 percent campaign might be the turning point that creates a paradigm shift in the Somali society”.

Among the most positive aspects of Somalia’s 2016 electoral process is undoubtedly the increased number of women – almost 30 percent of the total number of 14,000 voters was women, and the proportion of elected female parliamentarians increased to 24 percent from the previous 14 percent. There were perhaps no Somali glass ceilings broken, but many of those most committed to this issue – both men and women – underline that an important milestone was reached. Somali clan leaders’ conservative views on the role of women were openly challenged, even by many male political leaders. Furthermore, the positive momentum from the parliamentary elections seems to have been maintained: the newly appointed cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Khaire consists of a record proportion of 23 percent women among the core ministerial lineup, and some of the key parliamentary committees will be led by women. Much remains to be done, of course, not least ensuring that the increased representation of women is matched by an increased voice in the actual leadership of the country.

To highlight the importance of women’s participation in the political process, Sweden invited Asha Gelle, the Chair of the Goodwill Ambassadors, to the UN Security Council meeting on Somalia in January, 2017.

In her remarks to the Council, Asha Gelle Dirie, said “This is a substantial and unprecedented achievement for Somali women, and for Somali society as a whole,” noting at the same time the numerous serious challenges they had faced, and that despite real progress “a massive structural transformation is required to advance women’s representation in politics and the democratization process.”

Sweden’s Somalia Team