Somali legislators are considering passing a bill that will give legal backing to child and forced marriages in the East African nation that already has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world.
The Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes Bill will allow young girls who have reached puberty to get married. According to the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, the bill also provides too much wiggle room for sexual offenders and very little protection for victims.
It was presented before the parliament last Saturday for discussion.
Abdiwali Sheikh Ibrahim, the deputy speaker of Somali’s lower legislative body, told Reuters that the bill was drafted with input from the ministries of justice and women and human development, as well as Islamic scholars in the country.
“This bill is about discussion. Every MP has his/her own saying on it. We want it passed after discussion,” Ibrahim said.
But the bill is a deviation from another, the widely applauded Sexual Offenses Bill which has been in the lower house since 2018. The bill is a comprehensive instrument that criminalizes gender-based violence and child marriage.
In the 2018 bill, displaced people are also guaranteed protection against sexual violence. It also outlines how police and prosecutors are supposed to handle violence against women in a religiously conservative country.
The sudden drafting and discussion on a new bill that sets a tone lower than what was before the lower house only means one thing: lawmakers found the 2018 bill too radical for Somali society.
According to a 2014 analysis by the UN, about 45% of young Somali girls will be compelled into “a union” before they turn 18. Many of these unions are forced by poverty, but also as a result of custom.
In 2019, the speaker of the house, Mohamed Mursal Abdurahman, asked that cabinet rework the Sexual Offences Bill of 2018, because it “deviated from established law”. Abdurahman said the bill needed “substantive amendments” before being re-tabled before parliament.
It was not clear what these amendments had to be, but social activists argued at the time that unwillingness on the part of lawmakers to debate the bill only meant the bill made them uncomfortable.
The British ambassador to Somalia, Ben Fender, has decried the new bill, tweeting that now is a “[B]ig moment for MPs to decide Somalia’s future values.”
Fender added: “Govt submitted a modern Sexual Offences bill after consulting imams, scholars. Never debated. New draft allows marriage at puberty + says a forced marriage is one where the family (not individual) doesn’t consent.”
Some in the country are already speaking out against the new bill, using social media to attract international attention to the bill and put pressure on Somali lawmakers to pass the old bill.