This week the Republic of Somaliland, a conservative Islamic autonomous region of Somalia, introduced legislation to outlaw all forms of sexual offence. The bill, which has been approved by the lower house of parliament and is hoped to be passed by the upper house by the beginning of March, covers rape, gang rape, sexual assault, trafficking and child marriage, but does not explicitly mention domestic violence or female genital mutilation. Rape is not currently a criminal offence in Somaliland and there exists a culture in which victims are often forced to marry their rapists to avoid public humiliation. In recent years, gender-based violence has escalated in the region, partially due to the displacement of tens of thousands of people due to drought in the Horn of Africa last year, and children and women’s rights advocates have been lobbying extensively for stricter laws to help curb such violence.
Many view this proposed legislation as a historic victory for Somaliland women, with Nasifa Yusuf, the Executive Director of the Nagaad Network of 45 women’s organizations in the country, describing the bill as a “great milestone achieved by Somaliland women.” Guleid Ahmed Jama, the chairperson of Human Rights Centre Somaliland, voiced concerns, stating that the bill “does not make lack of consent the key determinant of rape. The victim has to prove ‘use of forces, intimidation or threat.'” The United Nations recognized the progress made through the introduction of this law in Somaliland, however the head of UN women in Somalia cautioned that there is much work still to be done “to develop the capacities of the national justice and security actors, non-state actors and service providers and to create awareness among the public.”
The proposed legislation against rape in Somaliland is a welcome first step towards a more progressive and stable region. Somaliland’s announcement also raises questions surrounding other state’s laws on rape around the world. A semi-autonomous region passing progressive laws on rape casts a light on the archaic and inadequate laws in other states. In 10 countries, marital rape is still legal, and in at least eight countries rapists are legally exempt from punishment if they marry the survivor. Such laws abet rapists and further victimize and humiliate those who experience gender-based violence and reveal that there is still a way to go to eradicate institutional structures that fail to deter this form of violence.
By introducing this legislation Somaliland is, in part, attempting to be acknowledged in the international community as a credible and functioning state, particularly in comparison to Somalia in which there currently exists no over-arching law against rape. Somaliland declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991, however, is not officially recognized as a country by any other states or international organizations.
It is hoped that the government, in conjunction with the women’s advocacy groups that have been encouraging the establishment of official laws regarding rape in Somaliland for years, will implement this legislation effectively if it is passed by the upper house. This will promote the development of norms in the region that change current notions surrounding sexual violence and blame.