Women do not belong under the acacia tree (A report by SIHA Network)


Gender in Crisis: Women in   Somaliland’s Informal Economy  


Throughout the Horn of Africa (HoA), war and the cross-border movement of peoples, alongside periodic drought and rapid rural to urban migration have all resulted in the massive expansion of women in the informal economy. While in some parts of the world this expansion has had positive effects on social and economic development, in many cases in the Horn, the proliferation of female populations in the informal sector over the past three decades has not led to any significant change in terms of their position in society. State collapse and the failure of nationbuilding projects across the HoA have provoked the emergence of new (and in some cases old) hurdles to women’s advancement. This includes the reversion to traditional structures and the rise of new, more militant forms of authority that have materialized to take advantage of the space provided by the breakdown of state. Consequently, women find themselves caught between the pressures of globalization and modernization on the one hand, and conservatism and tradition on the other. They are trapped somewhere between positive forms of role change produced by their swelling numbers in the informal economy and stagnation. As other research has pointed out, they are empowered and impoverishedii and lauded and castigated at once.

The purpose of this report is to shed light onto the conditions of urban poor women and female informal laborers in Somailand’s capital, Hargeisa. As part of a three country study involving Somaliland, South Sudan and Uganda, the Strategic Initiative for the Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) wishes to highlight the contributions of Somali women to the local economy, their communities and their families, while at the same time calling attention to the risks and challenges that they face in trying to make a livelihood, as well as strategies and coping mechanisms that women engage in for their own economic and physical protection. More specifically, it attempts to grapple with the myriad ways in which Somaliland women try and navigate the incongruous landscape that has resulted from war, state collapse and globalization. The report shows how women’s increasing engagement in the public spaces of the informal sector is punctuated by violence, marginalization and censorship and reflects on their day-to-day experiences in the home, with their customers and with the “state” and its authorities, in order to identify entry points for supporting Somaliland’s urban poor women, specifically those working in the informal economy.

Today, women continue working selling tea, khat (a mild amphetamine), jewelry, cosmetics, used clothes, textiles, household items and food stuffs on the street and in the market and in some instances have established small restaurants and shops in Somaliland cities like Hargeisa. However, they are being kept at the margins. They have battled their way into the public spaces of the markets and streets of urban areas and towns in Somaliland in order to meet their basic needs only to be kept there and denied opportunities and access to economic mobility and decision-making. The growing significance of political Islam and more conservative, radical currents of ‘Wahabism,’ or Salafismiii coupled with a weak state and the prominence of clan structures that have had difficulty adapting to an urban contextiv, have meant that women in the informal economy in Somaliland remain incredibly vulnerable to violence, extraction, coercion and abuse – unable to influence decisions at the household, community and national level. As observed elsewhere in the HoA, although there have been profound changes to women’s position in the economy, specifically in the informal sector, the gendered division of labor in women’s private life remains the same, as do the patriarchal attitudes and practices that keep women on the edges of socio-economic life.v Rapid change has created a crisis in gender relations where men are trying to hold onto a glorified past version of Somali masculinity with males as the sole decisionmakers and providers, which is often violently imposed on women. They are trying to retain their once elevated position and status in Somaliland society and fight against changes to the gendered hierarchy that have taken place in the war.vi As a result, women’s gains in Somaliland have been limited at best.


SIHA realized that although there is a large body of academic and policy-related literature on women in the informal economy, there is a lack of information on the extent of urban poor women’s marginalization and exclusion in Somalilandvii – the understanding of which, as other research has highlighted, is necessary if interventions are to be able to actually promote inclusive growth and sustainability livelihoods for vulnerable groups.viii  Indeed, across the HoA there are a number of non-governmental organization (NGO) programs that are said to not responsive to the socio-cultural and economic conditions of participants in project sites.ix  In keeping with SIHA’s research tradition of primarily qualitative documentation for advocacy purposes the report focuses on chronicling the lived experiences of women and girls in the informal economy of Hargeisa. The main vehicle through which data collection occurred were questionnaire guided interviews and focus-group discussions (FGDs) with a broad range of participants, including government officials, civil society groups, including grassroots women’s activists, international NGOs, United Nations (UN) agencies, Somali academics and intellectuals, customary authorities, such as clan elders, internally displaced persons (IDPs), minority clan members, female informal laborers themselves, youth and men. SIHA worked with their local partners in Somaliland to identify participants in different areas of the city and help facilitate contact with informal laborers and those who interact with them. It was felt that this was the best strategy for providing a more nuanced and contextualized description of urban poor women’s coping mechanisms and vulnerabilities in a Somaliland context.

Along these lines, the assessment concentrated on obtaining background information on informal sector women, their career aspirations, their opportunities for economic advancement, their responsibilities to the household and the community, their participation in different levels of decision-making, the circumstances that pushed them into this work, the challenges and risks they deal with on a day-to-day basis in trying to earn a livelihood, their interaction with state authorities like the police and their protection and coping mechanisms. The researcher also made space for participants, male and female alike, to narrate and discuss their experiences and perspectives on women’s participation in the economy and general socio-cultural and economic issues facing Hargeisa residents.


The situation of urban poor women and female informal laborers in contemporary Somaliland cannot be understood without due consideration to the history of protracted conflict and state and economic collapse that have been cited as contributing to the generation and strengthening of the informal economy. In fact, the modern Somaliland “state” was the product of the insurgency by the Issaq clan dominated Somali National Movement (SNM) in the northwest of Somalia that battled the harsh, repressive policies of the Said Barre regime in the late 1980s before unilaterally declaring the independence  in 1991. The war against the Barre government led to massive displacement and casualties amongst Somali populations in the area that is now known as Somaliland, with the number of estimated deaths to be between 50,000 and 100,000 people in Hargeisa alone.xi It also destroyed any existing economic infrastructure, including the closure of market centres and main ports, while at the same time disrupting traditional modes of pastoral life. Coupled with the entrance of men into war-related activities, women increasingly involved themselves in more visible forms of labor.xiii As one scholar pointed out:

“…the burden of labour [for women] shifted to tasks such as queuing up for food rations, fetching water from distant sources and engaging in petty trade to supplement their incomes.”

The war against Said Barre not only caused civilian destruction, it also created a space for the emergence of traditional forms of authority as clan structures stepped in to provide citizens with security and protection, which the Mogadishu government was unwilling and unable to provide. In Somaliland specifically, clans also played a critical role in the formation and maintenance of the SNM and helped to pave the way for peace in the northwest through local initiatives aimed at creating harmony between competing clans post-1991. The vacuum established by the collapse of the Somali state under Barre also meant the end of secularism as many people turned to political Islam as a way to vent their frustrations with “the failure of secular nationalist ideology to unite Somalis and overcome clannism.”xv During the war, religious militancy gained a footing as an alternative to both the failed attempt at nation-building, as well as patronage-based clannism. As stressed in other works on the Somaliland region, however, this process also entailed the reversal of the gains that women had made legislatively under Barre in terms of bettering their structurally subordinate position in Somali society… Read full paper Somaliland Revised Paper FINAL (3)_Received from Kafia(1)