Driving down any of Hargeisa’s main streets around midday, you are likely to encounter groups of students returning from a morning of study. Whether little children racing and playing or young people laughing and chatting on the route home, what is noticeable is the significant proportion of girls included in the number.

Increased school enrolment for girls is just one of the successes that the National Women’s Network, NAGAAD, can claim for women in Somaliland. (The NAGAAD team is pictured above.) The organisation’s Gender Coordinator, Kinzi Kowden (pictured below), told me that young girls can now aspire to higher positions within regular employment, and perhaps even in parliament.

Kinzi Kowden

The path into politics

Limited access to education previously presented just one of a number of challenges to women’s participation in politics within Somaliland. Social structures including the ingrained patriarchy and clan system, which fails to recognise female leadership, have mixed with misinterpretations of religious teachings to hold women back.

Kinzi’s hopes for a greater number of women to break into Somaliland’s political sphere are now moving closer to being realised, thanks to NAGAAD. The network, established to advocate for women’s rights, is currently pushing for the government to accept a quota of 25% female representation within key decision-making institutions, including the House of Elders (Guurti) and House of Representatives.

Positive responses

So far, the proposal has received some positive responses. Not only has the quota attained endorsement from the Guurti, but a National Consultative Committee for Women’s Political Participation has also been nominated by the President.

Cissy Nalusiba (pictured below), Progressio’s development worker placed with NAGAAD, told me “the traditional elders’ support for the quota, and the passing of the proposal from the Guurti to the President, marked a big step for NAGAAD and the impact of their advocacy campaigns”.

Cissy Nalusiba

False hope?

However, when the President failed to take any further action on the quota, simply handing the proposal back to parliament for on-going discussion without even making a recommendation, NAGAAD felt it had been dealt a set-back.

Clan culture, as they explained, continues to exert a great deal of influence, whilst the prospect of increased competition for seats in the House of Representatives also detracts from full approval of the women’s cause.

Pressure needed

NAGAAD’s Capacity Building Project Officer, Hasaan Suudi, explains that although there are currently some women in ministerial roles, the number is too few to submit a proposal for discussion by the parliament as a whole. For any real impact on women’s issues to be seen, he says, it is important to continue raising awareness of women’s representation at the community level; only then will greater pressure be placed on the government to address women’s rights and needs.

Through its meetings and forums, NAGAAD works to sensitise local communities, even using displays of traditional Somali dance as an opportunity to entice more women to attend and hear key messages. Kinzi recognises that this is the way forward for their campaign. “We need to work inside the House of Representatives,” she says, highlighting the need for diplomatic dialogue in order to further push the issue into the public arena, and ultimately onto MPs’ agendas.

Suad Abdi and Isabel Gammie

One step at a time

Progressio Country Representative and founder member of NAGAAD, Suad Abdi (pictured above left, with Isabel), helps place the organisation’s concerns in perspective. “I often think if it wasn’t for NAGAAD, who would be raising the issue of women’s rights?” she says. “It’s a process, but at least some achievements have been made. We need to focus on taking one step at a time, and to keep pressuring. After all, it is difficult to change societal values.”

Despite the time that change and progress inevitably take, the ambition of the women that the network serves lies at the heart of NAGAAD’s inspiration. And if the groups of eager school girls are anything to go by, that ambition is increasing by the day. With the foundations currently being laid by NAGAAD and its member organisations, achieving adequate female representation may only be a matter of time.

Isabel Gammie is Progressio's Programmes Officer. She visited Somaliland in April 2012. Isabel also took the pictures (apart from the one she is in!)