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Somalia's International Women's Day of celebration and dismay



Dadaab Refugee Camp, 2008. LUCAS OLENIUK / TORONTO STAR


First, the good news on International Women's Day in Somalia.

There is much to celebrate right now and much of that is thanks to the sheer determination of Somali women. One of the country's most famous over the years has been "Mama Hawa," a 65-year-old obstetrician, gynecologist and lawyer, who along with her daughters have created a safe oasis inside Somalia for women and thousands of others displaced after two decades of fighting.

Many Canadian women are the forefront as well, including Toronto's Fartuun Adan, the executive director of the Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, whose husband was assassinated in 1996 by warlords for his peace activism. Adan received the well-deserved U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award this week. Today, she will meet Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington.  

A whole new generation of women leaders are emerging.

Sadly though another story continues, and is dominating headlines. Twenty-seven-year old Lul Ali Osman Barake has gone public with her story of rape and the travesty that followed. She says she was not only gang raped by uniformed men but when she reported the crime to police and a local journalist, she was put in jail and sentenced to a year. As the Guardian's David Smith writes in his exclusive interview with Barake, "she has been raped twice: first by a gang of men in military fatigues, then by the judicial system in what is meant to be a liberated Somalia."

Through a Somali interpreter, this is what she told Smith:

"It was on 14 August, she said, that she woke up feeling unwell at her home constructed from sticks, plastic and metal sheets in one of the camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) that still scar the Somali capital. She went to a food distribution point and was approached by five men in uniform.

"They stopped me, slapped me and blindfolded me," Barake said.

"One took my hand and I had to follow them inside an empty school. I said I'm an IDP, I'm getting food to eat, what do you want with me?

"They said nothing. They were angry and they took me.

"They raped me, one after another, with four standing guard. When all five had finished, I said please allow me to leave, I'm breastfeeding a baby and need to get home. They allowed me to go. After I left the area I fell three or four times. Whenever I walked for 10 metres, I had to sit and rest."

She asked that her real name be used in the interview.

The case brings back memories from 2008 when along with photographer Lucas Oleniuk we tracked down the story of a 13-year-old Somali girl who was stoned to death for "adultry" after allegedly reporting a rape. That was a time when Somalia was at it's worst in recent history. Now it's is supposed to be at it's best.

The verdict against Barake of "defaming a government body and making false accusations" was thankfully overturned earlier this week. "The court has recognized the lady was the real victim," the judge said according to Smith, who added that Barake was present at the hearing with her seven-month-old baby.

And yet a sentence was upheld against the freelance journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, who interviewed her. As Human Rights Watch notes, the conviction itself is unclear. Al Jazeera reported one of his charges was "making a false interview, and entering the house of a woman whose husband was not present." Ibrahim was reportedly researching a story on sexual violence and his reports had not yet been published or aired. His sentence of six months was upheld.

There have been so many brave Somali journalists who have lost their lives in the two-decades of fighting, including the Canadian co-founder of HornAfrik (and friend) Ali Sharmarke. There have been so many women who have kept their families alive through years of war and under the hardships of the misogynist rule of Al Qaeda's East African proxy, Al Shabab. 

To have women's rights, along with press freedom, challenged now in a time of newfound peace is not the International Women's Day many Somalis had hoped to celebrate.

Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm




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