Somali elections: How women still fight for political space in African polls

Newly-elected Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed,left, and outgoing president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Feisal Omar/Reuters

The recent Somali elections have been touted as the next step towards peace and stability in the beleaguered East African state.

Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, has taken over the reins from Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who conceded defeat after a relatively peaceful poll in February 2017.

The polls have been heralded as a success. Yet, questions remain around the participation of women in the electoral process. There are also concerns about the election model and its impact on the future of women in Somali politics.

The election model

The election model didn’t deliver the universal suffrage promised in the 2012 election. It turned out to be another exercise in limited democracy that only extended to a small portion of the population.

This year, 135 traditional leaders selected 14,025 delegates. They in turn elected 275 MPs and 54 senators to sit in the lower and upper houses.

This was a marked change from 2012 where the 135 traditional elders directly selected members of parliament.

Voting was also held in six regional states in addition to Mogadishu. And in a repeat of the 2012 process, traditional leaders were again urged to reserve one in three seats for a female candidate.

Positive steps

The 30% quota for women candidates is admirable but thus far it’s not been achieved. Current figures suggest that female representation is closer to 25%. Despite failing to reach the one-in-three quota, the current figure is still 10% higher than the 14% achieved in 2012.

The quota system wasn’t the only positive step for women’s political participation in the February 8 election. Various religious leaders offered support for women’s engagement in politics stating that Islam isn’t at odds with female political engagement.

Old electoral models die hard

Despite the steps forward, female political participation was hampered by the very electoral model that garnered such wide support on the premise that it would foster the same participation.

Somalia’s election model still requires traditional male leaders to select the initial candidates. This system has been rife with corruption as prospective MPs lobby for endorsements.

Female candidates vying for positions within this system face three major obstacles.

Firstly, women are already excluded from customary law decision making processes. This leaves little room for them to assert themselves as potential candidates.

Secondly, there’s neither a policy nor a legal mechanism to ensure compliance with the 30 percent quota. While the provisional constitution designates space for women in politics, there’s no way to enforce this beyond appealing to the traditional leaders to implement it.

As Minister for Women and Human Rights Development Zahra Mohamed Ali Samata notes, all that women have is a promise that the quota will be filled. They have no one to hold accountable if they are overlooked.

Indeed, female politicians in the HirShabelle region were left without recourse when the Federal Indirect Electoral Implementation Team refused to recognise results for seats reserved for women in the House of the People.

Thirdly, the one-in-three election model asks female candidates to rely on progressive thinking from traditional elders in a male dominated society.

In 2012, this quota system produced far less than the desired 30 percent of female MPs, with only 39 seats of the total 275 going to female candidates. That notwithstanding, Somalia chose to resurrect the same model in this year’s election, and it was supported by western states.

As presidential candidate Fadumo Dayib pointed out, while western governments called for greater gender equality, they supported a system that placed female politicians at the mercy of male clan elders.

Future of women’s political participation

If women are to play a central role in Somali politics, they will have to forge the path themselves. Indeed, the president’s electoral campaign platform made no mention of women’s issues.

President Farmajo’s health agenda doesn’t outline plans to tackle maternal mortality rates in a country where UNICEF estimates one in every 12 women dies from pregnancy related complications.

In a country where domestic violence, rape and sexual assault are described as endemic there appears to be no strategy to tackle these issues in the national security policy outlined thus far.

This absence of gender sensitivity implies that women’s issues are not political issues. Yet without carving out a political space specifically for women, it will be difficult for them to champion key issues in any future campaign.

If truth be told, fostering the participation of women in the political sphere has faced a number of challenges in Somali elections.

Positive steps have been made but some of these challenges will only be overcome by the introduction of universal suffrage and a rethinking of the indirect election model.

There’s also a pressing need to entrench a legal framework that will regulate the implementation of customary law.

It’s concerning that even with greater female participation than seen in the previous elections, women’s issues are still not an area of focus in presidential campaigns. While there have been positive developments for women like the national gender policy and provisional constitution much more needs to be done.