Opinion: In the battle against COVID-19, women make Somalia stronger

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Women and children at a health center in Somalia. Photo by: European Union / ECHO / Thorsten Muench / CC BY-ND

Brave health workers. Brilliant researchers. Responsible leaders. Solidarity. Around the world, the COVID-19 crisis reveals what makes us strong. But it also highlights what makes us fragile.

Opinion: Women have a major role in rebuilding Somalia — the private sector must support them

Against security threats, female and male allies in Somalia’s private sector can make a real difference — plugging gaps in training and education, while removing barriers to formal employment. This op-ed explains how.

In Somalia, this includes two decades of conflict, frequent droughts, floods, and disease outbreaks. These challenges have weakened our health system. Multiple hazards have also forced many people to flee their homes, with more than 2 million currently living in camps where physical distancing is difficult and access to clean water is limited.

Somali culture — our focus on community and helping one another through trying times — has been a source of strength in confronting these hardships. However, during this pandemic, it will be hard to prevent our people from visiting friends and relatives, especially if they are sick. All of these characteristics make Somalia’s response to COVID-19 highly complex and demanding.

In responding to COVID-19, women make us strong

We can only rise to this challenge by drawing on the active contributions of women. They are a critical asset and source of resilience as we face the pandemic. During and after conflict, Somali women have stepped in to meet the immense needs of our communities. Due to death and displacement of male relatives, women currently head about half of all households and, across the country, generate an estimated 70% of household income.

Women make up the majority of health care workers, and women at home provide care that is not available from the formal health care system. Due to conflict and violence, their care burden is already heavy. In the coming weeks and months, women will again shoulder most of the responsibility of caring for the sick.

Gender inequalities make us fragile

The gender inequalities that prevent women from fulfilling their potential make us more vulnerable during this crisis. Women disproportionately work in the informal economy, with no protection in case they become sick or lose income.

To improve our understanding of women’s challenges in this context, my ministry — the Ministry of Women & Human Rights Development — recently interviewed 42 women engaging in small-scale business in Mogadishu while we carried out a food relief drive.

The women we spoke to sold imported secondhand clothes and a variety of food and drinks along the main streets of the city. Unfortunately, restrictions associated with the coronavirus had already dealt a devastating blow to their business. The curfew in place there has reduced the time they have to hawk their goods, while reduced human mobility in Mogadishu has shrunk demand.

What’s more, the closure of airports and seaports has meant that many of the goods they sell — including candies and clothes — are no longer available because they have to be imported. As a result, the women we spoke to had lost their income, threatening their own well-being and that of the six children each of them provided for, on average.

At the same time, women’s lower literacy rates — 36% for females ages 15 and over, compared with 44% for males — and access to technology will make it even more difficult to provide them with the information they need to protect themselves and their families from infection. Among the women we interviewed, few believed the coronavirus even existed.

When women fall ill or their care burden becomes overwhelming, families will also begin to pull young girls out of school to help. This will, again, be at the expense of the education and skills development of Somali women and girls. Extremely high levels of gender-based violence, exacerbated by decades of conflict, compound these challenges and undermine women’s capacity to care and provide for their families.

For these and other reasons, gender inequalities will intensify the effects of the pandemic on women and, given their critical contributions, on our society.

We cannot afford to waste women’s potential

What does this mean for our response to COVID-19? It means that addressing gender equality and women’s distinct experiences is not a long-term luxury.

Doing so is an integral element of an effective response to the coronavirus. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee has rightly recognized that responses must take into account the role of women and girls and aim to reduce inequalities and protect human rights.

During and after conflict, Somali women have stepped in to meet the immense needs of our communities.

First and foremost, women, gender experts, and gender machineries must actively, fully participate in developing and implementing response and recovery plans. This can help ensure that response plans and economic assistance both mainstream gender issues and include dedicated support that is urgently needed for the distinct challenges faced by women.

To this end, my ministry continues to conduct research and consultations on the specific needs of women and other vulnerable groups as the COVID-19 situation evolves. We bring the results to all of those involved in planning our response to the pandemic to help identify solutions that work for everyone.

To realize these interventions, we need all hands on deck. In particular, we count on the continued strong cooperation of our partners in supporting gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In this light, I strongly welcome the recent opinion piece by Jorge Moreira da Silva, director of the OECD’s Development Co-operation Directorate, and DAC Chair Susanna Moorehead, who have called for donors to protect existing commitments of official development assistance during this crisis and to target support to vulnerable people — including women and girls — in lower-income countries.

As we respond to the current emergency, we also have to look to the future. COVID-19 reminds us that addressing the structural drivers of gender inequality is both women’s right and an investment in future resilience. As we rebuild our economies and societies after this pandemic, we have to focus on reducing inequalities.

While Somalia faces great challenges, our transition from conflict also provides unique windows of opportunity to do so. Our ongoing constitutional review and preparations for our first “one person, one vote” elections in 2020-21, for example, provide key openings to enshrine women’s rights and participation in the foundations of our state — and thereby build a society that withstands crisis by realizing the potential of all of its people.

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Deqa Yasin Hagi Yusuf

    Deqa Yasin Hagi Yusuf serves as the minister of women and human rights development of Somalia. Previously, she held the position of deputy chair of the Federal Indirect Electoral Implementation Team, where she played a central role in enabling women to occupy 25% of seats in the Parliament. Prior to joining the government, Minister Deqa Yasin advocated for women’s empowerment, human rights, and peace-building during three decades of civil society activism, both in Somalia and internationally.