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Online Gender-Based Violence and a Path to Justice: Interview with Deqa Yasin

Tuesday July 9, 2024

Deqa Yasin’s work promoting women’s rights in Somalia has led to significant successes, including an increase in the number of women in Parliament and the development of the Somali Women’s Charter.

One of the first bills presented under Deqa Yasin’s leadership as Minister—the National Disability Agency Establishment Law—sailed through Parliament and was promptly signed into law by the President in 2018. However, several bills addressing children’s and women’s issues that Ms. Yasin sponsored during her tenure as Minister of Women and Human Rights, such as the sexual offenses bill, faced significant challenges. Despite being approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, the sexual offenses bill, which would have provided Somalia’s first dedicated legal protections from gender-based violence (GBV), stalled in Parliament. Other bills such as ones on child rights and anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) also were blocked at the cabinet level. This resistance to children and women’s rights is reflective of a broader global trend where progress toward achieving human rights’ goals, particularly those concerning women, is being obstructed or reversed.

Ms. Yasin faced another troubling aspect of the global trend: she became a target of online gender-based attacks due to her work as a minister—attacks 
mostly rooted in resistance to the sexual offenses bill. In 2020, she initiated legal action against one of her online attackers who threatened her life, taking the case to the District Court in The Hague, Netherlands. In November 2022, the Dutch court ruled in her favor, setting a precedent for prosecuting transnational online crimes and holding perpetrators accountable. This verdict was upheld at the Appeal Court in 2023.

In this interview, conducted by Phoebe Donnelly and Mahathi Ayyagari from the Women, Peace, and Security program at the International Peace Institute, Ms. Yasin recounts some of these experiences and talks about the role of the international community in combating online gender-based violence, how women in leadership roles can be supported, and what the future holds for women’s rights in Somalia.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about the sexual offenses bill in Somalia? Why is this bill significant?

Somali women are confronted with very high levels of sexual and gender-based violence. This poses a key risk to their security and to the security of our country. The sexual offenses bill was designed to address this enormous challenge by providing Somalia’s first dedicated legal protections from sexual and gender-based violence. It was forward-looking, provided clear definitions of the crime and associated penalties, and was consistent with Somalia’s regional and international obligations. The Somali Penal Code, written in the 1970s, contains significant gaps that fail to address modern realities, including technological advancements. For instance, incidents of rape are now being recorded on video and shared on platforms like YouTube, which the penal code was not crafted to address. The sexual offenses bill sought to close these gaps.

The sexual offenses bill also included provisions for witness protection and measures to safeguard survivors, such as allowing them to use a pseudonym in court—which could be carried over post-trial—or requesting the trial be held in a different city where they are not known. It was a crucial and much needed, well-timed bill, but, like any legislation concerning women and girls in Somalia, it faced opposition from male politicians and some religious leaders. During my tenure as Minister of Women and Human Rights from 2017 to 2020, I led the development of several bills upholding the rights of women and girls, which were proposed, but ultimately failed. For instance, the child rights bill and the anti- female genital mutilation bill were obstructed at the cabinet level. The sexual offenses bill not only faced obstruction, but also received significant backlash at the parliamentary level.

Additionally, many people did not read these bills, which allowed opponents to misrepresent their contents. If someone claimed a bill was against Islam, no one would question how it was against Islam, and the bill would not pass. The sexual offenses bill fell victim to such propaganda. Criticisms focused on Article 4, which defined rape. The article recognized that men could be victims, and this was misconstrued as promoting homosexuality. Parliamentary leadership did not even permit the bill to be discussed, and returned it to the Executive Branch without reading it first. This was unprecedented, and violated Parliament’s rules of procedure—a first in Somalia’s history. It’s unfortunate that actions within the legislative arm of government that hinder good practices are still allowed and condoned, despite support from the international community for the opposite.

Even though the sexual offenses bill failed to pass, civil society, a few progressive members of Parliament (MPs), and youth online were successful in mobilizing against a parliamentary counter-initiative on sexual violence, which would have violated human rights. Among other things, this so-called “penetration bill” would have allowed whipping and stoning of women accused of adultery. Civil society and youth engaged in discussions on social media using the hashtag #KillTheBill, and sustained a Somali-led momentum that successfully halted the bill. This shows that social media can be a force for progress for women’s rights—although it is also a space marked by high levels of violence against women.

You’ve spoken publicly about the online gender-based violence you experience. Can you tell us more about that, and about your recent court case?

 When I submitted the sexual offenses bill to the Cabinet in 2017, I faced opposition from sheikhs who attacked it from the get-go. These attacks continued throughout my three years as minister. The situation escalated on September 15, 2020, when the Speaker of Parliament, during a full plenary session, referred to it as “Deqa’s bill,” which changed everything. It was not my bill; it had been approved by 22 ministers, in meetings in which the Prime Minister—who was present and leading the proceedings—made it a collective decision and responsibility. Singling me out, instead of treating it as a collective responsibility, made me very vulnerable. Then, rumors spread that the bill was against Islam and that I was responsible. This is when my life was put in danger, and I realized I needed to take these threats seriously.

This happened while I was still in Somalia, and it became clear that I could not hold the top parliamentary leaders—who had threatened my life—accountable while I remained in the country. They accused me of being an infidel or gaal (non-Muslim), which is a death sentence in Somalia due to al-Shabaab’s presence. Additionally, Somalia’s justice system is weak and its leaders have undue power to influence legal proceedings. Meanwhile, those who were instigating online attacks against me began to include members of the diaspora. In particular, a member of the Somali diaspora in the Netherlands posted on his Facebook page that I should be killed by al-Shabaab and that he would take responsibility for my death. Following this, I began the process of bringing a case against him in the Netherlands where he lives. Through my networks, I was fortunate to find a Dutch human rights lawyer who specialized in international crimes. I knew from the start that the perpetrator was unlikely to face a serious sentence, but my goal was to demonstrate that accountability is possible when the rule of law is respected and upheld.

Following the attack—and you can imagine my state of mind—I had to conduct my own investigation and endure listening to many of his videos, full of threats and aggressive behavior, to collect evidence. I proceeded to open a criminal case in the Netherlands. The Dutch police arrested the perpetrator at his home, where he admitted what he had done. Nonetheless, when the prosecutor received the case, he decided not to take the matter to court because he was a first-time offender. However, in 2021 and 2022, the perpetrator went right back on his Facebook account and threatened me again. Given his repeated attacks I decided to take further action. I translated the threats and my lawyer in the Netherlands then reached out to the prosecutor to open a criminal case with the additional evidence. Now they had to take me seriously. And they did, finally opening up a court case.

In September 2020, during these attacks, there was shocking news about a young lady in Somalia who had been gang-raped and then thrown from a two-story building, resulting in her death. These heinous crimes are precisely why the sexual offenses bill was established. If it had been made a law, this girl, and many other victims, could have received justice. Yet numerous appeals to enact the law made through press releases, within the Council of Ministers, and to the country’s leadership by me and my ministry, went unheard.

She was on my mind when I went to court in the Netherlands, and I felt I was speaking on her behalf, and on the behalf of other women, young girls, and children that may never get justice as long as there are no comprehensive legal protections from gender-based violence in Somalia and elsewhere.

Although the judgment did not result in jail time for the perpetrator—only a few hours of community service—he now has a criminal record. For me, it was a matter of principle. Now, people from the diaspora realize that transnational online violence against politically active women is a crime, and it is possible to pursue and obtain justice. I hope this case can set a precedent for women, that they can now dare to fight back, and make their voices heard against online gender-based violence in Somalia and beyond.

Not everyone is in the position to do what I did. I would have gladly taken the attackers to court in Somalia if it were possible to do so there, and if my safety was guaranteed. However, as a national leader, I was in a position of privilege with the ability to seek justice in the Netherlands and be supported unequivocally by my friends and family. Choosing to remain silent would have meant not allowing my voice to be heard and would be an injustice to myself and to all those women who are not in the position to pursue justice in this way. Despite my relative position of privilege, the process was extremely long and difficult and had a very limited outcome. Things need to change to allow more women to seek real justice. Nevertheless, this court case has shown that it is possible to hold perpetrators to account.

Somalia has an election scheduled for 2026. How is online gender-based violence a threat to women’s political participation, and what can be done to mitigate this threat as the election approaches?

When I was the Deputy Chair of the Federal Implementation Electoral Team (FIET) in Somalia in 2016, we were able to increase the number of women in Parliament that year by almost 25%, in both the Upper House and the House of the People. In the 2021 electoral process, the number of women in Parliament in both houses dropped to almost 20%, and it is likely that these numbers will continue to decline in future elections.

It frustrates me that the discourse on Somali women’s political participation is often limited to the lens of “quotas” by stakeholders. We must broaden the discussion to encompass the myriad of risks women face when they seek political office. This includes addressing online violence, which extends beyond electoral cycles, and discussing rights, women’s empowerment, political participation, and the legislative and policy measures needed to elevate women. We also need to confront security threats like those posed by al-Shabaab’s presence, as well as accusations of promoting a Western or anti-Islam agenda by radical sheikhs. These challenges are often used mainly by men to push back against the women’s agenda and hinder their progress. There must be a discussion to mitigate these challenges, anchored in legislation, and enforced moving forward.

We need to closely examine what women face when they step into leadership roles. Consider the case of the first woman deputy speaker in Somalia—her appointment was a significant achievement, yet she faced attacks, including online ones. If a sitting deputy speaker can be targeted, what message does this send to the next generation of aspiring leaders? Therefore, our focus must expand to encompass these realities.

Electoral violence isn’t just physical; it includes pervasive online harassment such as trolling, name-calling, and baseless accusations, like labeling someone an infidel or accusing them of promoting anti-Islamic issues, as was done to me. In the Somali context, such online threats easily escalate into offline violence. Globally, we have this same kind of backlash, but it’s crucial to understand that in Somalia, attacks on women in leadership roles are compounded by unique challenges such as the presence of al-Shabaab, inadequate security, and a post-civil war generational gap. The first tactic used to attack women, to silence and intimidate them—not physically, but psychologically—is to say she is promoting Western ideology, or she is against Islam. Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive plan to mitigate such attacks. Merely advocating for quotas is not sufficient if potential female candidates face intimidation and harassment on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Moving forward, discussions around supporting women in Somalia’s electoral processes must include strategies to confront these complex challenges, which are likely to persist in 2026.

Are there things the international community can do to address the online gender-based violence facing women leaders and activists in different contexts?

The first step is acknowledging the existence of the issue and recognizing its reality. We must assess existing laws aimed at limiting and preventing these issues, and advocate for national-level changes in policies and legislation. Enforcement of these policies is crucial to address and mitigate the problem effectively.

Additionally, in my case, achieving justice was made possible through the working relationships I had with the Global South and Global North coming from my service in civil society and advocacy. I found a lawyer in the Netherlands thanks to my network of friends and advocates. These are the synergies we can create. When I faced online attacks, I initially felt lost and unsure how to respond. It’s crucial to pass on this knowledge to newcomers, especially women aspiring to political roles. Empowerment comes from having a support system, which enables individuals to speak out confidently. Creating and strengthening such support networks is essential to moving forward.

Finally, we need the international community to support local researchers and civil society organizations in documenting and analyzing online gender-based violence in the contexts where they live, so as to provide evidence for advocacy and identify context-specific solutions.

Can you tell us about the Somali Women’s Charter and its purpose?

During my tenure as Minister of Women and Human Rights, Somalia underwent a constitutional review process. This was one of many attempts made by successive governments since the draft was first passed in 2012, aiming to finalize the provisional constitution. I viewed this as a crucial opportunity to advance women’s rights by forging alliances among women, amplifying our voices, and ensuring our perspectives were prominently represented in shaping Somalia’s new constitution. To this end, I organized the Somali Women’s Convention. The idea was to give women a larger platform to advocate for their rights and influence policy in Somalia.

Prior to the convention, I had organized a retreat with civil society, MPs, and women leaders to prepare and agree on the convention’s three-day-long agenda. The convention then brought together over 250 Somali women and male allies from across Somalia and the diaspora that included federal member state Gender Ministries, women members of Parliament, civil society, media, the private sector, youth, the religious fraternity, the internally displaced, and people with disabilities.

During the convention, participants jointly developed the Somali Women’s Charter, which summarized their shared demands for women’s rights in the constitutional review and beyond, including calls to strengthen the rule of law, women’s full participation in socio-economic sectors, protection of women’s rights, and zero tolerance for sexual and gender-based violence and female genital mutilation.

When developing initiatives like the Somali Women’s Charter, it’s essential to set ambitious goals, not only for the present, but also for the future. The Charter was forward-looking and asked for 50% of parliamentary seats to be occupied by women. A lot of people—even key stakeholders and our international partners—suggested we stick with a 30% quota. Rather than aiming for just 30%, why not strive for 50% representation? While achieving this goal may take time and effort, aiming higher ensures a broader perspective and a more robust pathway towards gender equality and inclusive governance.

At the end of the convention, the Charter was presented to—and endorsed by—the Prime Minister of Somalia, and he called for the development of action plans for implementation. As we wanted to make the Charter as local as possible, we then conducted further consultations in each federal member state to identify priorities based on each local context. On this basis, every federal member state came up with their own plan of action for implementing the Charter, and it is something they will move forward.

During that time, we were working in Somalia on our National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security as well. As the Charter covered all areas of the WPS agenda, we believed our Charter and its implementation action plans were the best, inclusive, homegrown product to take the WPS agenda forward.

Is there hope that a bill like the sexual offenses bill could be passed in Somalia in the future?

 In 2024, there was a positive outcome in the federal member state (FMS) of Galmudug where an anti- female genital mutilation bill was passed by not only the Cabinet but the Parliament as well—and the president signed it. It was a Somali-led process, this bill stood out for its unique strategy, which I fully supported with technical and strategic backing. Collaboration was key, involving the FMS President, the gender minister in the state of Galmudug, advocacy at the parliamentary level, and consultation with forward-looking intellectual sheikhs. Notably, this initiative was driven entirely by Somali lawyers. To avoid claims of Western ideology, international NGOs were not at the forefront, and the bill wasn’t even translated into English. The moment opponents spot an NGO or civil society banner, or the logo of an embassy or the United Nations, they automatically dismiss it as a Western agenda. This is the first anti- female genital mutilation bill in Somalia. With the right leadership, good intentions, and a solid strategy that learns from past experiences, things can change. Nearly four years ago, many of the bills I supported were rejected, but that was my training ground. Now, in this new phase, I am leveraging my experience to conduct behind-the-scenes advocacy and support other processes. Progress on female genital mutilation legislation gives me hope that the sexual offenses bill, too, can be adopted one day.

We do need the international community and research institutions to ensure that local voices are being amplified and, most importantly, that the international community realizes that sometimes they need to be at the back, because the presence of the international community can be used by the opposition as a reason to not have more women leaders. It allows radicals to say having women leaders is a Western agenda, or that they are promoting things that are against our culture. The international community also needs to follow their money, and they need to see what support they are giving and how impactful it is.

There were people from my own clan who were intimidated by my political success. I was a threat to them. A lot of women will face that because, at the end of the day, even their own clans don’t want women to be there. Women need to understand that, and they need to support each other. What happened to one woman yesterday can happen to you tomorrow if we are not there for support.

Phoebe Donnelly is a Senior Fellow and Head of Women, Peace, and Security at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Mahathi Ayyagari works as part of IPI’s Women, Peace, and Security team.


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