Mariam Dahir on fighting for women’s rights in Somaliland and the power of social media

Mariam Dahir is a doctor and health system specialist who is passionate about gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and human rights. Warning: This post deals with FGM and might be distressing for some readers. 

Being an out spoken woman in a Somali context is difficult imagine, especially to be an activist as well to change social norms. The women in my country are dominated by the patriarchal community and most of the violence happens to them or social inequality is mainly against women’s rights! Most of the practices I speak against are an ice breaker!

The social norms and accepted violence within the community include female genital mutilation (FGM), lack of access to menstrual hygiene information and towels, and domestic violence. I use social media to raise awareness of the harmfulness of this practice, and how it affects girls in many aspects! Somaliland and Somalia are among the countries with the highest prevalence of FGM - it is estimated that 98% of total population of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have undergone under gone FGM practices.

There are many organizations that fight to end this practice, but awareness-raising has typically focused on educating girls and elderly women. Men remain the driving force behind FGM, since it is mainly practiced to preserve girls’ virginity. Activists use many different media in order to end FGM.

FGM is internationally recognized as a human rights violation against women and girls. It is a marker of deeply rooted inequality between men and women, and is based on the discrimination against women’s and girl’s health rights, in violation of the right to be free from the cruel torture of their body, inhumanity or degradation of treatment, which all procedures of the FGM practices result in. FGM can also result in death, as a direct or indirect cause.

Social media has changed the face of activism worldwide, but in societies like Somaliland it has a particularly important role. The main advantages: that it helps activists reach a wider audience, and that in a conservative society it’s the only platform that’s truly open for women.

Social media has changed the face of activism worldwide, but in societies like Somaliland it has a particularly important role. The main advantages: that it helps activists reach a wider audience, and that in a conservative society it’s the only platform that’s truly open for women.

Despite the negative aspects of social media, where so many users struggle to maintain their voice and identity in the face of criticism and trolling, it remains the best tool for an activist like me – a woman living in a conservative community, where there are few other platforms where we can share our ideas and opinions.

In fact, it’s our only option sometimes: in my country, Somaliland, women do not have access to journals, magazines, or other media. These platforms are all managed and owned by men. Women can be fearful, so it pushes them to quiet it - there was a young woman who wanted to spread messages to challenge the social norms but that caused her fiancé to break up with her because of the negativity that her messages brought to her. 

Fighting FGM on Facebook and Twitter

Social media helps to reach and to raise awareness, also to project your voice beyond. In my own work campaigning against FGM and other issues related to youth and women’s rights, social media has helped me reach a much wider audience. Today a large number of people follow my Facebook and Twitter pages, where they can learn about these topics and find reliable information. Those I focus on reaching are mainly young girls and boys who are the future generation, to build their ideas and change the perceptions that they raised on by the community, in fact

Safe spaces for young women’s voices

In a community where women’s voices have long been silenced, social media has helped many women to speak out and have the courage to tackle the social norms. To give an example, two of my campaigns started through WhatsApp. The first was a group for sharing ideas and working with young girls who have progressive opinions but are afraid to express them in public. These girls felt safe to speak out in the WhatsApp group; we discussed their ideas and found ways of turning them into action, helping them take the next step with their families, friends, and other networks.

It helped the women activists to collaborate support each other; for example if I post about an issue they all support and share it widely this helps the message to reach beyond and make us one voice.

With this kind of mentoring and mutual support, many of the girls developed into activists and leaders. It helped the women activists to collaborate and support each other. For example, if I post about an issue they all support and share it widely - this helps the message to reach beyond and make us one voice.

Nevertheless, the youth voice - both male and women - is not that appreciated within the community for change but creating space to listen to each other builds their confidence and learn from each other. This is what I like about the Facebook groups who nurture many young girls to join our campaigns and even change their lifestyle and opened their mindset that broadened their thinking.

For example, a young women who joined us in the group had different ideas about FGM - like what her mom told her and every mom tells her children – “FGM is your Pride, never touch it until you get married.” She was suffering complications of FGM but she never thought that was the cause. When she recognised me as a doctor she wanted to talk me in private so she shared with me her symptoms, and I realized that FGM was hurting her. She motivates me to continue to save many girls like her.

Translating online activism into real change

Social media has been used as a tool to reach more audience in the community - men as well as women have begun to question about the topics we discuss like FGM. As they investigate further and search for answers, more and more become activists themselves.

The turning point in building momentum for this movement came from discussions on social media. We build networks that supports the campaigns - for example if we need to do outreach to communities to raise awareness, we post the need of volunteers and most of the time we have more people joining then expected! This showed us how many youth have the courage to join just showing the example and being the first then they follow, it’s very encouraging and motivating to change social norms in generation.

I mentor young women and men face to face but first they asked for the mentorship online after engaging online campaigns - they really want to understand their talents how to tackle the social norms  and to be more effective in social media campaigns.

This inspired me to create a pool of social media campaigners that I mentor their work. It is also important to mention that we collectively engaged campaigns offline, visiting villages and communities to raise awareness about FGM, educating young girls and women, the commemoration of international days like Youth Day, Zero Tolerance Day, and the 16 Days of Activism of Gender Based Violence.

We use these opportunities where people gather to spread of messages and also engage decision makers in order to stop FGM by having a law that prohibited the FGM practice (in Somaliland there is no law criminalizing the FGM practice which is now main focus of my campaign). It helps me also to build networks within young women and youth in general that they carry the messages to their communities.

Through Facebook there was a girl who eagerly followed our campaign and learnt about FGM. When I went to her village (up to the west of the country Lughaya-cost) for one of my campaigns, she approached me and told me that I inspired her to start the awareness raising and educating others in her village. She showed me her work and how many women listened to her and stopped to cutting their daughters (ending FGM). This is a proud moment when you inspire others to do amazing work because you set the example for them!

Social media: learning to swim

Both online and offline, an activist needs to be persistent and resilient. The world of Facebook and Twitter is like an ocean; with wise mentality and vigilance, you can learn to swim. If you use social media wisely, with the emotional intelligence to stay calm in the face of whatever your opponents throw at you, you can help change a community.

When I started my campaign offline, FGM was a taboo that was hard to discuss openly. Now with the help of social media you can make a difference, there is many different ways you can swim and win in social media but I always believe one is most important to understand “ Readiness” are you well equipped to use it, which means you have to be know your allies and your oppositions, are you resilient and committed to the finish line!

My advice to readers is first learn about the content you want to change, every angle of it - the good things and the bad things (of course you have been touched and moved by this culture either way, like FGM touched me and my life).

Be informed and keep your eye on the updates and  never forget to take breaks when you’re tired. This helps me to rethink, re-analyze and reshape. As I said earlier never walk alone - maybe you are the first to break the ice, but remember the African proverb -“ if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.”