Lots of powerful men — and a few powerful women, including the American Secretary of State — are meeting in London to talk about the dire “security threat” that is now Somalia — or, in the words of Britain’s foreign minister, “the world’s most failed state.” (Because that’s a useful competition with rational metrics.)
Nevermind that international interest in Somalia phase peaked only now that we’ve recognized that the country’s internal strife can be an external threat — to us. Nevermind that this is a pattern diplomatic rhetoric pays service to constantly, about countries all over the world — in other words, that we’re not suddenly discovering this idea, or Somalia.
Pay attention, instead, to this good question: Where are the women?
It’s a point raised not in any mainstream news article I’ve read this morning, but instead by the website Women’s Views on the News. In an article there, Asha Ahgi Elmi, of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, points out the obvious: “If women are not part of the process they cannot be part of the outcome.”
She also makes two other key points: that the crises that have suddenly put Somalia on the international agenda — piracy and terrorism — are not new or surprising. They are, she argues, “by-products of prolonged negligence.”
So when all the people running the show are being so negligent, who’s stuck being responsible? You guessed it: Women. Elmi continues, “During all those years of conflict in Somalia, women have had to take up non-traditional roles as breadwinners and entrepreneurs, and it is the courage of women that keeps Somali society in existence.”
I acknowledge that writing a blog post calling out the myopia of world leaders is easier than finding ways to bring Somali women into the process. The article referenced above was prompted by a report that leaked documents on the future of the state say nothing about women’s rights or women’s participation in whatever government comes next (assuming, you know, that you can just order these things up from London). Actually doing so would be difficult; there are cultural and contextual challenges. And if you’re a diplomat, you can anticipate those challenges. You probably think raising these issues would kill any possible agreement. And you might be right.
You’d also be yet another diplomat joining in a long line of foolish and facile decision-making. If Elmi is right — and from what I’ve seen in my own work, she is — you’d be practically guaranteeing women won’t have a role in the future state.
That’s a state that won’t function, no matter how well-worded your conference declarations, if Somali women don’t keep up the breadwinning (and bread making) Elmi reminds us they do. And those are jobs we can thank them for doing, even if we can’t promise them the political moon.
There’s a lot of talk among the people I interview about the tussle between the field and headquarters. The world looks so different depending on where you work. But here’s the thing I think headquarters most often (indeed, reliably) misses: Women aren’t an agenda. They are a reality.
To say, as I imagine many in London might, that political participation for women would kill progress on Somalia in general is to treat women only as part of a political agenda. They can — and often should — be there, too. But whether or not the powers that be dare (or deign) to advance that conversation, women are cooking meals, sending kids to school (or teaching them themselves), maintaing relations with the neighbors, and finding some product or skill to sell so that tomorrow morning they can buy food and repeat the cycle.
If it’s too soon to promise Somali women the political moon, let’s at least acknowledge we know they’re there — and doing a better job of running the show, quietly and often from the home, than the men have done.