Women are no longer passive observers, but instead active participants. We have challenged the social cultural paradigm and carved out women's political space in the national political dispensation...

Acceptance speech – Asha Hagi Elmi

Madam speaker, Recipients of the Right Livelihood Award, Honorable Guests, Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen –

I am greatly honored to be the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award for the year of 2008. I am thankful for this recognition from the Right Livelihood Award family. This recognition has showed me that all of my labor in sometimes painful and stressful environments has been worth it. Despite the difficulty, frustration and hostility that I have faced, I realize that I am counted as part of a larger community who value and work for human rights. I am not alone. Thank you.

It has been a long journey. My country, Somalia, has been engulfed in Civil War and political upheaval for the past 18 years. It has always been the case in all armed conflicts that women and children are the first and last victims of war, though war is neither their desire nor their decision. Women have been killed, raped, tortured and displaced. They have also lost their loved ones: brothers, husbands, father and children, and as a result have shouldered an extra burden of caring for their families. This was indeed a new phenomenon to women since their husbands were either killed or busy involved in the war. As is the case being the bread winner was culturally and religiously the sole responsibility of the man and this further compelled women to shoulder a new role which is keeping their families together. Moreover, those who suffered most were women from cross clan marriages. They were rejected by both their clans of origin and marriage since either clan did not confide and trust in them. They underwent emotional and relationship trauma.

I am a living example of those women who paid a huge price. When the Somali Civil War erupted, that was the time when I realized that my husband and I were from two different clans, two different identities. Because this war was clan-based, both clans – of birth and of marriage – were both major clans in Somalia and were deeply involved in the hostilities. Because of this both of these clans became hostile to each other. My clan of marriage saw me as a stranger, an outsider and at times a traitor. They didn’t want me to know or even listen to what was being said. In my clan of birth, they also saw me as an outsider. My relatives saw me as someone who did not belong to them because I had this “other part” that was related to the enemy. They didn’t want me to know their conversations and plans. This caused me much personal pain – being trapped between two different worlds with no identity. I felt that I don’t fully belong to any clan, because no one trusted me as a full member. This painful moment made me realize that war has nothing to offer women except for death, destruction and devastation. And that is where my motivation to take the risk to work for peace has come from.

I took the decision in this horrible circumstance to choose between two options. I could allow this pain and anger to drown me, or I could come up to say no, and use it as a tool to create something good. At that time, I knew that there were thousands of women just like me; mothers, and wives who were experiencing this same painful situation, but didn’t dare to express their emotions. Using the pain to make something good, the pain led me to create a new identity: the identity of womanhood. Because many women experienced this lost identity between two different, warring worlds, I found that I had to create a new and different place where these “outsiders” belonged. I began to communicate with other women who faced the challenges of cross-clan marriages. “Save Somali Women and Children” emerged from this vision. I realized that peace is the life for women, and that they have every reason to take the risk for the quest of peace in order to build the future for their children. Also, as a mother, I was thinking of the future of my own daughters, not to experience the same painful issues that I have faced.

SSWC was born out of the anger, pain and frustration of Somali women during the civil war. The founders were women from different clans, different political affiliations, and different social economic backgrounds, but shared common commitments and concerns about the promotion of peace and the protection of women’s rights. The organization has taken the innovative step in the Somali conflict by surpassing traditional clan boundaries and, instead, taking a national outlook. Women in solidarity, regardless of clan affiliation, are working to promote the peace process with a common voice. Inter-clan marriages, instead of dividing and isolating women, act as bridges between the various clans to promote peace. SSWC has capitalized on this powerful tool to promote a culture of peace and spirit of reconciliation. Formerly without identity, women are now ambassadors for peace.

These relationships and this organization have given birth to a more far-reaching vision: the sixth clan. In the year 2000, the Djibouti President convened the first all inclusive national reconciliation conference aimed at ending the clan hostility and coming up with a comprehensive national solution. Unlike the previous attempts the participation of Arta/Djibouti conference was clan based. In Somalia, women have no space or room in the traditional clan structure because in patriarchal and patrilinial societies, women have neither responsibility to protect the clan while at war nor the right to represent the clan at the table of negotiations. Because of this, the clan leaders excluded women’s participation from the conference altogether. Women’s perspectives had no place in the process. SSWC made the courageous decision to dispute this decision, and worked to find a way to ensure that women’s voices influenced the proceedings of the conference. It was the courage, tenacity, vision, activism and dynamism of SSWC under my leadership that organized the women beyond the clan boundaries and brought them together to form our own clan as an identity to fully participate in national solution seeking process. We demanded our rightful space in the national reconciliation process. It was our strong conviction that our contribution was vital and worthwhile. We mounted pressure on the host country (Djibouti), paramount clan elders, religious leaders, etc. We also built strategic alliances with some of the clan leaders, Islamic Scholars, politicians, etc from different clans to support our cause. When I was trotting up and down and striving for the women’s inclusion in the conference, some prominent politicians and traditional elders from my clan approached me with an intention to bribe me by offering me a space in my clan’s share as a privileged person and urged me to give up the fight. I turned down the offer and thanked them. I went on to tell them that I was not only fighting for myself, but for the greater cause. I vividly explained to them my commitment and determination towards the struggle. I pleaded with them to join me in the fight and as a result, a section of them got convicted by my passionate plea and eventually they became part of our strategic alliance for our cause. After a lot of hurdles and hiccups, eventually, our participation was recognized. And that is how the Sixth Clan sprang up and marked the beginning of Somali women’s entry into the peace and political process.

Through the Sixth Clan, we have transformed the women’s role from the traditional ululation to indispensable stakeholders for national peace and political process. We have also taken women from the periphery to the negotiating table as equal partners and decision-makers. Women are no longer passive observers, but instead active participants. We have challenged the social cultural paradigm and curved out women’s political space in the national political dispensation. Finally, we have helped in drafting the first ever gender friendly charter that guaranteed the allocation of the women’s quota which was 25 seats in the previous parliament.

So, I come to you and receive this award as a representative of a broader movement. Many rejoice over this achievement. This award recognizes the gains of the Sixth Clan of Somalia. This award recognizes the achievements of all Somali women who bravely challenge the tremendous risks and sacrifice their families’ lives and health for the quest of peace. I believe that this award is the recognition for their lon- term commitment and struggle for peace and human rights. This recognition goes to all Somali women – both those who are alive, and those who have already passed on. I must mention some of these women who have journeyed so far, but are not here to also receive the award with me. I receive this award on behalf of women who are still paying a huge price because of a lack of peace and security in their country. I mean the many IDP’s who daily face trouble in my country. Other courageous women who I want to mention are the Honorable Zakia Abdisalan, Istalin Arush, Zahara Mohamed Nuur, Madina Mahamud Ilmi (also known as Medina General). God bless their souls.

This award means a lot to Somalis. It is beyond and above an award to all Somalis. The timing of this award comes at a very precarious time for this nation, as each day for the past two years the situation has continued to deteriorate. Unprecedented and unaccepted crises are taking place. Piracy off the coast of Somalia, never before a part of our culture, has threatened international trade. Set against this backdrop of unending bad news, this award offers a positive, bright spot of hope for Somalia. This award demonstrates the positive side of Somalia: that humanity still exists in the desperation that Somalis face. There is courage within the fear. It has given hope to many Somalis that there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel, and that Somalia has another face. Somalia has good people. The world and Somalis finally know that some good is taking place in this troubled country.

In addition, this award is a powerful message against the people who use violence as a means to gain recognition, power and money in my country. There are other ways to receive acclaim. The tools that these individuals use are negative, destructive tools, like murder, rape and torture, yet the people who won this award have no blood on their hands, and instead use dialogue to win their wars.

Finally, I think of my daughters, and all Somali sons and daughters. I have brought my daughters along to this meeting so that they will feel proud, and recognize all of the hours and days that their mother has sacrificed to complete this work. This is also their moment to feel what their mother has been doing and to see why we have lived a hard life, but these sacrifices have paid off. This award leaves a legacy that offers a different direction for my nation, and for the children of Somalia. This award is theirs as well as a legacy for peace.

My involvement for seeking peace and stability by using dialogue has never stopped, and that is why I am a member of the high level peace talks in Djibouti under the United Nations’ leadership led by Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. So far, through this commitment, the peace talks have registered significant milestones, and an agreement was reached on the 26th of November of this year. I am appealing to all Somali people to take this opportunity to build on this platform that can lead us to a long-lasting solution, and the creation of a unified Somali government that will solve the crisis that we are currently experiencing. The sons and daughters of Somalia have the first responsibility to sort out their difference and think about the fate of their future. We must not wait or look up, but focus and work together as one people. We must not wait for solutions offered from outside, but instead offer the civilians the chance to live under a reconciled, peaceful country as dignified citizens. Through this, we can bring back Somalia into the family of nations.

Finally, I appeal to the international community. I ask you to continue to support our efforts in working toward peace. Please continue to respond positively to the ever-growing humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia. The plight of women and children depends on your support. Also, please support Somalis in their quest to restore and reconcile the Somali state, and also to reconstruct and rebuild Somalia.

Once again, thank you for this honor and privilege to receive this award.

Asha Hagi Elmi
Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC)
PO Box 38887 – 00623 Parklands