WASHINGTON / HARGEISA — The parliament in the self-declared republic of Somaliland has approved a bill criminalizing rape for the first time, and requiring prison terms for individuals convicted of the crime.
The bill, passed Saturday, is the first of its kind in Somaliland criminalizing not only rape but all gender-based violations against women. It lays out a process to investigate the cases and prosecute perpetrators.
The bill now goes to the upper house of parliament and could be the first major legislation signed by President Muse Bihi Abdi who was elected in November.
Women's organizations and human rights activists in Somaliland welcomed the passage of the bill, which was approved by 46 of the 51 MPs present.
Among those praising the parliamentary approval was Nafisa Yusuf Mohamed, the executive director of Nagaad, a women’s organization based in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
“We have been working on this bill since 2011. It has gone through different processes, but we are very happy that it has been adopted,” she told VOA Somali. “The people of Somaliland have welcomed it, we congratulate the parliament for discharging their duties.”
Under the bill, an attempted rape conviction would carry a four to seven-year jail sentence. An individual who rapes a victim using force or threats would get 15 to 20 years. If the victim is under the age of 15, the perpetrator gets 20 to 25 years.
Attackers who cause bodily harm or infect their victim with HIV in addition to committing rape would receive life in prison.
An increasing number of reported rape cases are related to gang rape. Gang rape was not mentioned in the existing penal code, but the new bill has a specific provision for gang rape which carries 20 to 25 years imprisonment.
Recently, the Somaliland Human Rights Center said rape is one of the least reported crimes in Somaliland. It said that in 2017, 81 rape cases were prosecuted, a small number compared to the number of alleged victims.
No more mediation by elders
In the past, elders have mediated between the families of the rapist and the victim, often leading to a lack of justice for the victim. In few cases, a victim ended up marrying her rapist under pressure from her family or the elders.
Mohamed Hersi Farah is an elder who performed mediations but says he stopped it in 2006.
“Before we intervened in individual cases and we dealt with clans, and there were no laws. But now there are gang rapes with more than 10 people involved [in a case]. We didn’t know where to start,” Farah said.
The new bill criminalizes mediation and other attempts to solve rape cases outside the courts.
“Anyone who attempts or mediate a rape case in this way could go to jail. We hope this will scare those who performed this outside the court who will now realize the government will jail them," says the chairman of the human rights center, lawyer Guled Ahmed Jama.
Jama says he welcomes the fact the bill specifically focuses on rape and gender based violations and empowers law enforcement agencies powers to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.
“This is a modern bill specifically on rape, previously rape was just an article under the penal code; this is a comprehensive bill,” he said.
Somaliland declared secession from rest of Somalia in May 1991 but so far failed to gain international recognition.