By: Leigh Campel
Clare Brown is on a mission, but it’s not an easy one.
Though she practises law, she doesn’t go home from work each day to her apartment in Sydney or Melbourne to take a break from her job like the rest of us. She’s living and working in Somalia to fight for the rights of African women against sexual violence.
“To become a lawyer you are expected to do a certain number of days of practical legal experience, which I did at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania,” Brown told HuffPost Australia.
“From there I met other people in training to become lawyers who connected me with my boss, Antonia Mulvey, who was in the process of setting up Legal Action Worldwide, the organisation I now work for. I came to Nairobi with the intention of helping her set up the organisation over the period of a few months and am still there four and a half years later.”
Brown has witnessed first hand the crimes that still occur today in Somalia and other parts of Africa which has given her fuel to fight.
“The year I first started working in Somalia, 2013, was the year after the federal Somali government was established in August 2012. It was also the year in which five people were arrested for reporting rape… our partners estimated that three people had been convicted for committing it.”
“A woman who was allegedly kidnapped by the Somali National Army and then drugged and raped by members of the African Union Mission in Somalia received so many death threats after telling her story to a local TV channel in August 2013 that she was forced to flee the country,” Brown said.
“At that time, it was quite difficult to get high level recognition from people in positions of power that rape was a problem in Somalia. It was also in 2013 that we began working with Somali legal aid providers who informed us that rape was widespread and increasing, and described to us the many challenges facing survivors who want to access justice through the court system.”
“I began working on a report that Legal Action Worldwide later produced about the enormous challenges faced, the deficiencies in the legal system in dealing with it and the work of the legal aid providers in trying to assist extremely vulnerable people from displaced and marginalised communities to access justice.”
“We worked with those organisations to come up with practical recommendations to overcome some of those challenges and we are still working on implementing some of those solutions today, including the adoption of the Sexual Offences Bill,” Brown said.
The proposed Sexual Offences Bill, now four years in the making with plenty of hurdles in the way, would be the first of its kind for the country.
“The Bill would be the first Sexual Offences Bill to be passed by the Federal Government of Somalia,” Brown said.
“The current law criminalising rape is the Penal Code introduced by the Italian colonising power in 1960 is based on its own law from 1930. It is outdated and piecemeal, criminalising a very narrow range of sexual offences which do not reflect the range of sexual crimes currently being committed in Somalia, including gang rape, rape that is filmed and posted on the internet, rape against men and boys, and many others.”
“The new Act comprehensively criminalises sexual offences and also provides a new procedure to follow to limit the risk of exposure and re-traumatisation of survivors and to hold police accountable for failures to properly investigate allegations of rape,” Brown said.
Brown is pleased that the new Minister of Women has now put the Sexual Offences Bill on the Cabinet’s agenda, however it’s still not a done deal.
“When the Minister of Women was due to present it two weeks ago she was told by some in the cabinet that certain sections of the bill needed to be checked for compliance with Sharia law. Religious scholars helped develop the bill and this minister has also since had it reviewed to ensure no part of it is contrary to Sharia,” Brown said.
She hopes that this will not delay proceedings too much as it has been far too long without legislation that properly criminalises sexual violence in Somalia.
“The former President of the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, Judge Vagn Joensen, described the bill as ‘the most comprehensive Bill on sexual crimes [he has] seen anywhere’.”
Brown hopes to see a day when the women of Somalia can freely speak up against sexual violence and live a life free of conflict and poverty.
“Due to decades of conflict and famine, many Somali women are living as the heads of their households as displaced people inside Somalia. These women are the most at risk of sexual violence and a range of other human rights violations, as well as poverty and the effects of climate change.
“There have been some advancements for women in the political sphere in Somalia, with seven female members of the current cabinet and 20 percent of women in parliament. My hope is that the increase of women at the government level will increase to real changes in the lives of women and girls throughout the country,” Brown said.
“I have heard several women in positions of power talk about the way men laugh at them when they suggest policies for the protection and empowerment of women. My hope is for a Somalia where women in politics are not laughed at by men for trying to improve the lives of other women, and where those other women are able to live free from the fear of sexual violence, conflict, poverty and hunger.”
She also wishes for Somalia to be seen for the stunningly beautiful and diverse landscape that it is.
“I would like to see Somalia become a tourist destination. It has the longest coastline in Africa. There is one area near to its border with Kenya which is designated as a national park, featuring the kind of African savannah and animals you would see on safari in other types of East Africa, but which is also right near the coastline — so you would be able to see game animals and relax on the beach in one setting.”
“I think that one day resorts will open in that national park, and I hope it is soon enough that I am able to go on holiday there,” Brown said.