Gender in Humanitarian Response in Somalia: Displaced Women Continue to Struggle

Women’s rights advocates, experts, policymakers, and leaders are gathering at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the United Nations’ largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment, in New York.  The 68th CSW theme is on Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective. Social protection and infrastructure to support women and girls will also be in focus.  

The timing is particularly critical for fragile countries like Somalia. With over 30 years of collapsed social infrastructure and services, protracted drought, conflict and displacement, women and girls have endured the reality of the harshest consequences. Mainly, the lack of a functioning state infrastructure has left millions with no access to life-saving gendered services and assistance.

Various international and national humanitarian organizations have provided life-saving assistance in the last three decades. Since 2010, the Somalia Humanitarian Pool Fund (SHF) has received significant donor aid to support the UN-led response and fill service gaps for crisis-affected groups. However, many agencies still overlook gender considerations, neglecting the unique needs of women and girls, who are the majority of those affected by drought and conflict. Challenges and barriers to promoting gender and women’s rights within Somalia’s humanitarian service provision include the structural patriarchal norms, practices and cultural stigma attached to acknowledging gender issues, which are impacting current humanitarian operations and the type of service provision. 

Everyday realities faced by crisis-affected women and girls in Somalia


To truly comprehend the reality faced by those living in such circumstances, it’s essential first to understand the environment and the everyday challenges faced by women and girls affected. For example, an internally displaced mother in Somalia, forced from her home, away from her lifestyle due to climate-induced drought, has to live in an informal makeshift camp on the outskirts of an urban city without basic amenities such as electricity, lavatories, and street lights.  Every night becomes a battle against fear. Instead of sleeping,  many women and girls within the camp take turns staying awake, guarding against the terrifying prospect of men creeping into the camps to violate women. However, much humanitarian aid assistance only goes to water and food. But even as they wait in line to receive water assistance, one or two women or girls from the camp inevitably stay behind in their makeshift tents, recovering from the violence inflicted by men at night. For women and girls living in the camp, access to safe, permanent shelters instead of sleeping in open tents covered only with cloth would mean less exposure and vulnerability to the different forms of sexual violence. 

During my visits to internally displaced camps in Somalia, I have encountered numerous women and girls living in perilous conditions without access to basic gendered tailored services and assistance. In the Puntland region, I visited an urban camp with the majority population being rural women and girls displaced due to prolonged drought and recent conflict in Las’ Anod. Each one of them shared stories of harassment by men in security uniforms who would travel from the inner urban city during the night. Without male guardians, street lights, or any form of door to shield them from perpetrators, many displaced women and girls felt utterly hopeless.  Sanitation is another big challenge for displaced women and girls. Access to private gendered toilets within the camp would reduce the vulnerability of women and girls, as well as restore privacy and dignity. 

Somalia’s displaced population increased to over one million in 2023. While emergency food, water, and shelter have been the main priorities within the humanitarian response, and they are critical, it is also equally crucial for the majority of women and girls living in these unsafe open camps to have access to gender-specific tailored assistance. Even a basic solar lantern would be considered life-saving for them.

Gender-based violence, including rape, kidnapping, and harassment, is rampant in Somalia’s displacement camps. In the first quarter of 2023, UNFPA reported that 54% of GBV incidents against displaced persons were recorded. The full scale is unknown because many cases remain undocumented due to social and cultural stigmas associated with patriarchy, which discourage conversations and efforts to address sexual violence, as well as calls for accountability and prevention.

Who decides the services for IDP communities?

In Somalia, gender inequality and patriarchal norms heavily influence the humanitarian system. This male-dominated decision-making leads to a lack of urgency in providing specialized services for women and girls. Additionally, there’s a failure to conduct national advocacy and awareness on sexual violence and identify protection solutions for women and girls, as well as serious accountability. Somalia’s internalized patriarchy within the aid sector is evident in the unemployment rates. Already, the general national outlook is not encouraging. In the 2022 National Bureau of Statistics report, male labour force participation was 73%, contrasting with 25% for females. Women also hold fewer professional and managerial positions than men.

Displaced Somali women in a camp.

As a practitioner striving to shed light on the harrowing reality of gender-based violence within Somalia’s displacement camps, I face resistance and denial. Advocating for vital gender-focused aid programs is met with dismissive remarks and outright denial of the atrocities taking place. I have been met with wild suggestions from some male practitioners asserting that Somalia’s Muslim identity somehow shields it from issues like rape and harassment as if faith could erase the painful truths experienced by countless women and girls. Others go as far as accusing displaced women and girls of fabricating their stories, dismissing their suffering as mere lies. 

Throughout my visits to local displaced communities, and as women shared their stories and expressed their concerns about their protection and long-term future, I couldn’t help but think if only women were leading the humanitarian response in Somalia. Indeed, we would see greater emphasis and recognition of the urgent need to support women and girls within these camps. Access to health centers providing sexual and reproductive health services, case management assistance for gender-based violence response and prevention, legal aid, and counselling would be prioritized, as well as economic assistance to give women and girls the ability to come out from these camps and into a safer environment. 

But bringing more women is not enough. We must also reimagine what these social protection and infrastructures could look like. We must first start by listening to and engaging with women and girls’ lived experiences of conflict, displacement, and climate change. They can tell us exactly what they need to recover and rebuild their lives during and after a crisis. Local displaced women and girls in Somalia deserve equal participation in the humanitarian response system. Women’s leadership in this critical sector would enable them to influence funding allocation, inform and design gendered programming, and innovate social protection services and infrastructure that reflect their unique experiences and needs. 

For conflict and climate-change-affected communities in Somalia, ending the marginalisation of women in leadership is crucial to alleviating the suffering of many that the current system refuses to hear and eventually leading them out of poverty. We would be able to prioritize supporting women and girls who endure the daily challenges of conflict and climate-induced displacement and, most importantly, open doors to the re-imagination of new innovative social protection services and infrastructure for gender equality. 


Sagal is an African women’s rights activist, writer, and local practitioner who works with local communities and women-led organisations in conflict and post-conflict contexts in Africa and the Middle East. 


  1. Amazing article! Very insightful! You have a diverse set of experience that is necessary in providing a critical analysis in the current climate in Somalia!

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