'For me it's like a murder': the surge in sexual attacks on children in Somalia

Children at a camp for people displaced by violence. Campaigners say many victims of rape and sexual assault come from the overcrowded shelters around the capital, Mogadishu. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

When Anab’s madrasa teacher in Mogadishu told her to stay behind after classes, everyone but her two younger brothers left. He ordered the boys to face the wall, then assaulted their six-year-old sister.

Anab’s father, Yusuf, says he clearly saw the “shock and horror in the face” of his daughter later that day.

“She told only her mother what the teacher did to her. I could not believe it. We rushed her to the nearest clinic,” says Yusuf.

Five months after her ordeal, Anab now attends a new school and is beginning to recover. The Somali Women Development Centre, a Mogadishu-based organisation that provides medical, psychological and legal support to survivors of sexual violence, has been central to her rehabilitation.

But she is not alone. Recently, there has been a rise in the number of reported cases of sexual violence involving children, according to the centre.

“In the last three months alone, we have documented about 100 rape cases including 26 children, some as young as four, in Mogadishu,” says Amina Arale, the centre’s executive director.

“Most victims come from overcrowded camps for internally displaced people in and around the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu.”

Young women in a session at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu, where survivors of sexual violence can find refuge, medical care and support. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Sexual violence is pervasive in Somalia, but most cases go unreported because of the accompanying stigma. Between September 2016 and February 2017, the Somalia Protection Cluster – a network of about 130 organisations focused on rights and support – reported more than 1,500 incidents in the country.

Yusuf says two of his neighbours told him the same teacher had sexually assaulted their daughters. Shame prevented them from reported the incidents.

“If they first reported him to the police, my daughter would not have been affected today. I suspect he has been abusing her for quite a long time,” he says.

The few who dare to speak out encounter a weak legal justice system. Consequently, many people turn to customary law – conducted by clan elders – which often results in victims marrying their assailants while their families are given some cash compensation.

Yusuf resisted pressure from elders and demanded the perpetrator be brought to book. In February, the man was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.

“I am not satisfied with the judgment,” Yusuf says. “I am working with my lawyer to appeal against the decision and seek a tougher punishment. I do not understand how they come to such a verdict. If I stop pushing the case now, the chances are he will come back and abuse other children.”

The same court sentenced a man convicted of raping a 14-year-old boy to five years in prison earlier this year. The boy’s mother told the Guardian: “For me it is just like a murder. He killed my son, he destroyed his future and my son will live with the trauma for the rest of his life.

“He threw him on the ground, held his head against a ditch – face down – and raped him.”

The ruling was based on a colonial-era penal code written in Italy in the 1930s.

“The penal code is a weak, non-comprehensive legislation that does not respond to the realities on the ground in Somalia in 2018,” says Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide (Law), a non-profit network of human rights lawyers that is supporting the federal government in the drafting of a new sexual offences bill.

The bill has been in the making for the past four years, but has still not been passed. Political in-fighting within the executive delayed much-needed justice for the many victims of gender-based violence. The speaker of the Somali parliament resigned last month following internal conflict with the president.

Eight-year-old Fartun is still waiting for justice. He was allegedly raped by a man in his 40s in the outskirts of Mogadishu last October. The man was arrested on the same day, and is being held in the central prison.

“I was told the political crisis in the parliament has affected everything,” says Fartun’s father, Jelle.