“ I was worried, I wanted to run, but I knew the same thing that brought me here would get me through this-my hunger. I had made my choice and I couldn’t turn back now.”- Kassa D, 19 year old victim of sexual abuse by an AMISOM soldier.
Nineteen year old Kassa D, is one of the many Somali girls and women who are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by soldiers from The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The above quote derives from a seventy one page report written by the Human Rights Watch titled “ The Power These Men Have Over Us” which includes victim accounts that emphasize the vulnerability of internally displaced Somali women and girls in Mogadishu.
Somalia has been a focal point for famine, conflict and political instability for many years. Majority of the Somalia’s population remains internally displaced and is highly reliant on humanitarian aid. In attempts to mitigate circumstances that have plagued Somalia, The African Union Peace and Security and UN Security Council implemented AMISOM- a collection of regional forces that are to protect Somali government officials and oversee humanitarian support. Most troops deployed are from Uganda and Burundi, and many come from Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Djibouti. In addition, AMISOM is financially funded by the UN and countries such as Japan, Norway and Canada. The largest financial sponsors are United States, The European Union and the United Kingdom.
On September 8th 2014, The Human Rights watch interviewed 21 victims of sexual violence and exploitation, and the accounts highlighted in the report indicate the powerlessness and manipulation Somali women and girls face as they often fall victim to attacks when in search for food or medicine. In many cases, the victims explained that were coerced by Somali interpreters, who lead them to the AMISOM soldiers. In one case, a 15 year old girl named Aziza, was instructed by the interpreters to “ treat the soldier like her husband” and “ make him comfortable”. When she was confronted with the nature of the encounter, she begged the interpreter not to abandon her. But he did. When she resisted, the Somali interpreter threatened her.
“ I did it because I was threatened… it was either do as he wants or die,” she says.
Aziza was left with ten dollars and a bag of apples to appease her, and frame the crime as a transaction; a tactic used by many soldiers to deter the women and girls from reporting the crime.
As the circumstances of poverty, poor living conditions and rampant illnesses persist, many women and girls are ready to do whatever it takes to support and protect their loved ones. Also, many have been left as breadwinners for their families as the civil war resulted in the deaths of fathers and brothers. AMISOM soldiers preyed on such vulnerability by granting women with passes to restricted base camps to instigate a system of sexual exploitation.
Privilege is a term that is used in the most lucid context. One has privilege if they can sleep soundly, can have their daily meals and are free of the fear of being attacked based on their gender. However , with the comfort that western societies grant, privilege can result in oblivion and even worse, desensitization.
Of course, individuals within the diaspora can easily become immersed in western culture, as there is added pressure both technologically and socially to assimilate. At the same time, it’s just as easy to hate the thought of being pegged as the over-zealous individual who preaches against the depiction of Africa, as merely somber children with dirty faces. Amongst the many conveniences of privilege, one can choose their approach, but often times it’s safe to be silent.
For instance, Somalia is often classified under the umbrella term as the “failed state” by western media. It seems like the country is facing marginalization on the basis of this label, as the media and many living in privileged societies are no longer surprised by the desolate position of the country.
This is evident as the occurrence of the tragic event remains virtually under-reported and as a result, normalized. I have also observed an absence of dialogue on this issue, despite the 21 brave women in the report who are breaking barriers against pervasive cultural stigma, victim-blaming and the fear of being socially ostracized in traditional Somali society.
The sexual abuse and exploitation by AMISOM forces on Somali women and girls prompts a challenge for individuals within the diaspora and in western societies. The traditional perception towards sexual abuse as being incidental has been put to the test, as victims were also sexually exploited and faced continued psychological manipulation. In addition, the response to exploitation must be redefined as a direct result of poverty and vulnerability.
From the western perspective, one should understand that the AMISOM forces, who are tasked with overseeing humanitarian support, used aid resources to coerce the women and girls : creating system of oppression.
In this very challenge, there is a cost for having a privileged mindset and seeking silence. Western societies can no longer place amplified hope on humanitarian aid or believe that sexual abuse is inevitable in developing countries. At the same time, individuals in the diaspora cannot seek comfort in the traditional responses that deems sexual abuse and exploitation as taboo in order to remain in a cycle of denial and shame.
Because the women and girls have initiated a step forward by speaking out above all odds, then, we cannot afford to take a step back.
Clink the link below to read the official report published by the Human Rights Watch: