Rape Hotline Reaches out to Women in Somalia

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Marco Werman: Terrible things are happening in Somalia, and the African country's Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, controls a bit more than half of the capital, Mogadishu. The al-Qaeda linked group, al-Shabab, controls the other half along with large swaths of Somali's south and central regions. The militants have been brutalizing the population. American activist, Lisa Shannon, is helping create a center in Mogadishu to aid victims of sexual violence. Those victims are many and their stories are horrifying. Miss Shannon, who arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, today from Mogadishu told us one of them.

Lisa Shannon: I talked with one girl yesterday who is 17 years old and her best friend lived next door to her. And a member of Shabab showed up at her house wanting to marry her. Her father refused, so they killed her father. And one day the girl that I spoke with was at home and heard a commotion out front. She walked out front and they were digging a hole. And they proceeded to drag her best friend out and stone her to death right in front of their house and then bury her in the hole. This girl just last month had a member of Shabab follow her home to her hut, and pushed her inside. Five men followed and they gang raped her in front of her younger brothers and sisters. And what she talked about is just constant fear. She's scared to leave her house. She's scared to sleep at night. She's scared to walk outside to use the bathroom because she's afraid that she'll be attacked.

Werman: So what kind of support does al-Shabab have from the general public in Somalia if these things are happening under their kind of rule as it were?

Shannon: If anyone objects they're basically killed just like these girls' fathers were, so people are basically living in a state of complete terror. I mean we were supposed to go to Mogadishu two weeks ago, but we had to cancel because there were multiple suicide bombings inside Mogadishu, and that's the safe area. So people are under complete Shabab control. There is no outlet. So for people to be able to come into the TFG-controlled area and actually find a kind of sanctuary which we need to create is really something exceptional.

Werman: And describe that center. I mean it just sounds so chaotic and so violent in Somalia that it's hard to imagine that a project could address some of this.

Shannon: I expected going in that the women would be very reserved and it would be hard to break down some of those barriers, but in fact that wasn't the case at all. They were smiling and laughing. We gave them letters from American women and they were incredibly touched by that. It has the feeling of a kind of sanctuary there and that was a surprise to me.

Werman: Lisa Shannon, one part of this project that perhaps addresses some of the security issues is, and it's a little surprising, you're setting up a rape crisis hotline. I mean I'm surprised to hear that Somali women have access to cell phones.

Shannon: I would not have imagined that there were active cell networks, but in fact, strangely one area of the Somali economy that has boomed is technology and networks, so in fact, it's very appropriate. Also because women can access, the idea is they'll be able to call the line and they can provide counseling over the phone, transport to the center, a meal...they're given a letter from someone abroad who cares about them, then provided emergency grants (perhaps to move to a more secure area). In fact, the girl that I talked about is going to be the first recipient of the program and we're looking in to what we can do for her right now in terms of moving her away from the site of the attack so she doesn't have to see these guys every single day. But also, vocational skills for women so that they're able to build a life in an area that may be slightly more secure outside of the al-Shabab area, and have a chance to network with other women who have lived through it. That was one of the things that I saw there too, is that the women really had developed a community and were supporting each other in a way that was very striking.

Werman: Is it working?

Shannon: You know, you have to think about the alternative and I think this is what drove my interest in Somalia. I've been haunted by it for years, this sense that in the international community we make decisions all the time about where it is worth investment and where it is not worth investment. And the thing that haunted me is since the early '90s Somalia has been pretty much categorically written off. And there's no one in Somalia that's been more written off than Somali women.

Werman: Lisa Shannon is working to create a lifeline for victims of sexual violence in Somali. You can see a slideshow of her work at theworld.org.