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Women’s Lawyers Association in Somaliland


by Caroline O’Connor, UNDP Somalia

Somalia has been in a state of war for over 20 years. In conflict and post-conflict countries such as Somalia where structures for the administration of justice have collapsed, the human rights of vulnerable groups such as women and children are even more subject to abuse. One of the major human rights violations perpetrated in Somalia is sexual violence against women. It is an endemic problem that must be tackled at a number of levels: legal, political and social. UNDP has supported the efforts in South Central Somalia and Somaliland of two women’s bar associations that campaign to protect and promote the rights of women in war-affected areas—guaranteed by UN Security Council Resolution 1820—as well as provide technical support to female lawyers. I have spent the last six months working as Access to Justice (Judiciary) Specialist with UNDP Somalia on the Rule of law and security team (ROLA). As a former committee member of the Irish Women Lawyers Association, I was eager when the opportunity presented itself to work with Somaliland Women’s Law Association (SWLA). SWLA is a non profit, non partisan NGO established in 2008. It is the first female lawyers’ association not only in Somaliland, but in all of Somalia. Somaliland seceded from Somalia in 1991, and advocates independence for the north-western portion of the Somali Democratic Republic and remains unrecognised by any state or international organisation. 

The establishment of SWLA is an extremely important step, both in terms of assisting female lawyers in their professional career and in providing appropriate and gender-sensitive legal advice to women in Somaliland. The sole practicing female lawyer in Somaliland until 2007 was Ifrah Aden Omar, who heads the SWLA. Ifrah is also the Director of the Women and Children’s Unit at the Hargeisa legal aid clinic that was itself established with UNDP help in 2003. There are currently 17 female members of the SWLA with a further 24 women set to graduate from the University of Hargeisa’s law faculty in September this year, bringing membership up to 41. UNDP has provided grants for females to attend Hargeisa law faculty since 2004. The SWLA is enhancing the skills of female lawyers in Somaliland through the creation of an internship program placing recent female graduates in law firms and government ministries. Currently, there are no prosecutors or judges in Somaliland. Ifrah is aware of the fact that it will take time for the male-dominated legal profession to understand and accept the importance of women lawyers in society but SWLA lawyers are the forefront of change in Somali society. 

The SWLA legal team consists of a Chairperson, coordinator, 2 lawyers, 4 paralegals, secretary and an administrator. Paralegals conduct weekly and daily visits to police stations, monitoring visits to prisons and IDP camps in the Hargeisa region. Their team has represented female clients at all stages of legal proceedings and their paralegals engage in much mediation work. UNDP provide technical assistance to SWLA to create awareness and the means to run the association in terms of equipment, technical and financial support as well as legal training and establishing links with female lawyers outside Somaliland. The aims of the SWLA include: to provide free legal aid for women and children in Somaliland, to provide a professional and social network for women lawyers and to promote the wider participation of women in development of the law. 

Since 2008, SWLA has undertaken a number of awareness raising activities, to publicize their activities and facilitate discussion on women’s role in the law profession. This included radio messages, 2 newsletters which also discussed women’s rights under Islam (2000 copies distributed) as well as information meetings with elders and community leaders, Police and Justice Officials as well as members of the local and national authorities. This has led to a greater awareness of the SWLA amongst the population and a greater acceptance of their work. One tangible achievement was that from September 2009, the SWLA began providing legal aid and directly representing cases in the Courts, something which would have proved more difficult a year previously when there was still a lot of resistance to women appearing as defence Counsel. The awareness raising has also paid off, demonstrated by the immediate demand seen for legal services provided by women. SWLA conducted weekly monitoring visits to prisons, 8 police stations in the region and 5 IDP camps, to provide legal assistance and representation. SWLA also conducted a number of workshops which were well attended and improved public awareness on women’s rights and established that female victims of crime are entitled to defend their rights through the justice system.

The existence of voluntary legal organisations such as SWLA is vital to many women in Somaliland, which lacks a free legal aid service and where the legal system has frequently failed to protect and uphold their human rights. Women and girls are most disadvantaged and vulnerable to the effects of poverty, poor education and violence of all types. The most common cases SWLA deals with are rape, domestic violence, divorce, child custody, child maintenance and inheritance. Since September 2009 to December 2009 the SWLA assisted in 91 cases in total, i.e. 58 family cases, 8 rape cases (art. 398 – Carnal Violence), 11 domestic violence cases, 3 detention of illegal weapon cases, 1 inheritance, 1 double marriage and 9 cases under art. 496 of the penal code (cheating) which led to the release of women prisoners from Gabilay Prison. 
It was a fascinating and invaluable experience to work with such women in a young and vibrant organization. I worked on capacity building, advocacy and monitoring and evaluation aspects of SWLA. Of course, there are challenges facing SWLA but with the support of their partners and the Government, they can be overcome.

See further www.slwomenlawyers.net

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