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CRSV: Somalian Civil War

This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

The Somali Civil War is an ongoing civil war that began in the 1980s, following resistance to the military junta under Siad Barre. Between 1988 and 1990, the Somali Armed Forces engaged in combat with a range of armed rebel groups, such as the Somali Salvation Democratic Front, the Somali National Movement, and the United Somali Congress. In 1991, these armed opposition groups overthrew Siad Barre’s government, and began competing for influence in the “power vacuum” following the end of his regime (Bongartz 1991; Menkhaus 2007). By 1992, customary law collapsed owing to all the fighting (Menkhaus 2007). In July that year, the UN sent military observers (UNOSOM) and peacekeeping forces. While fighting continued, Somalia did not have a central government, earning the title of “failed state” (Anderson 2009; Fergusson 2013; Jamal 2015). In 1995, the UN withdrew from the region, especially because of large casualties and the collapse of the police force it had created (CIA 2011). With the collapse of the central government, there was heavy reliance on customary and religious law, and fighting continued across the country. In 1991 and 1998, there were two autonomous regional governments in place, which, though decreased fighting relatively, there was still some low-grade violence unfolding (Menkhaus 2007).

In 2000, the Transitional National Government was established. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government was established. Armed conflicts stopped in 2005, but resumed by the end of the year until 2007 (Menkhaus 2007). In 2006, Ethiopian troops seized the southern part of Somalia, causing the breakdown of the Islamic Courts Union that had been established shortly before. Of the breakout factions, al-Shabaab emerged – a group that continues to fight the Somali government and the AU-led AMISOM peacekeeping forces (Messner 2014).

In 2011, Kenyan troops entered Somalia to fight al-Shabaab. In 2012, the Federal Government of Somalia was established, effectively becoming the country’s first permanent central government since the civil war began (UN 2013). Fighting continues to date, with multiple attempts having been made to address the al-Shabaab. In February 2021, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term expired, but no date was announced for elections. Eventually, in May 2022, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud became president.

Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Rape in Somalia spiked during the civil war in 1991 (SIDRA Institute 2019). Somali women have faced sexual violence and rape both in Somalia and in IDP camps (76% of all recorded cases) and in the hosting community (14%) alike (SIDRA Institute 2019). Given the breakdown in the security sector and the lack of reportage, it is typically difficult to pin down an accurate number that reflects the true prevalence. The United Nations reported that in 2020, 400 civilians, primarily girls, were victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence (UN 2021), representing a near 80% increase in comparison to the previous year. Over a 100 cases of sexual violence against girls was verified by the UN (2021). Violations carried out by clan militia, the UN (2021) reports, has almost tripled over the past year – a phenomenon linked to the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Over 15% of all cases of sexual violence were attributed to the government security force – namely the Somali National Army and the Somali Police Force (UN 2021).

There were also instances where Italian and Belgium peacekeeping troops were accused of acts of sexual violence between 1993 and 1994 (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). Trafficking was also a major problem, where women were often trafficked in large numbers into the Middle East, Europe, and South Africa for both forced labour and sexual exploitation (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). Women were also targeted in refugee camps (Human Rights Watch 2002). The Women Victims of Violence Program in 1993 documented 192 cases of rape among Somali refugees in Kenya (Fitzgerald 1998). However, the UNHCR (2006) estimated that the actual figures could be 10 times higher.

Basis of the use of Sexual Violence

Sexual violence has been used against women in Somalia as part of a common strategy of clan-based warfare (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). Women were raped in the course of looting raids by clan militia, when they went out to fetch water, and when they worked in the fields (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). Most often, sexual violence was used to target women from less powerful clans and ethnic minorities (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). Rape and sexual violence were used as “weapons of war” following the collapse of Somalia’s central government (SIDRA Institute 2019). Reports show that militia group took revenge on women to avenge their enemy, and that sexual violence and rape were also perpetrated opportunistically with impunity (SIDRA Institute 2019). The use of customary law to settle cases of rape out of court never provided victims justice, which meant that there was no holding perpetrators accountable. Thus, rape and sexual violence prevailed because of the breakdown in the security sector system (SIDRA Institute 2019). It was also deployed deliberately to humiliate the enemy by targeting its women (SIDRA Institute 2019). The UN (2021) also noted that sexual violence – particularly forced marriage – and rape were used by al-Shabaab to control women and girls in areas under their de facto control.


  1. Anderson, Jon Lee (2009). "The Most Failed State". The New Yorker.

  2. Bastick, M., Grimm, K., & Kunz, R. (2007). Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Global Overiew and Implications for the Security Sector Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

  3. Bongartz, Maria (1991). The civil war in Somalia: its genesis and dynamics. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

  4. Central Intelligence Agency (2011). "Somalia - Government - Judicial branch". The World Factbook.

  5. Fergusson, James (2013). "Somalia: A failed state is back from the dead". The Independent.

  6. Fitzgerald, M.A. (1998) Firewood, Violence against Women, and Hard Choices in Kenya, Washington DC, Refugees International,

  7. Human Rights Watch (2002) Hidden in Plain View: Refugees Living without Protection in Nairobi and Kampala.

  8. Jamal, Ahmad Rashid (2015) "Identifying Causes of State failure: The Case of Somalia". Universität Konstanz Politik-und Verwaltungswissenschaften.

  9. Ken Menkhaus (2007) 'Local Security Systems in Somali East Africa,' in Andersen/Moller/Stepputat (eds.), Fragile States and Insecure People,' Palgrave.

  10. Messner, J.J. (2014). "Failed States Index 2014: Somalia Displaced as Most-Fragile State". The Fund for Peace.

  11. SIDRA Institute (2019) Rape: A Rising Crisis and Reality for the Women in Somalia. SIDRA Institute.

  12. United Nations (UN) (2021). “Somalia: Call for urgent action following ‘alarming’ 80% rise in sexual violence.”

  13. UN (2013) "Communiqué on Secretary-General's Mini-Summit on Somalia". United Nations.

  14. UNHCR (2006) The State of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium, Oxford and New York, OUP

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