Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lisa Shannon and Fartun Abdisalaan

The Awesome Women of the Day are Lisa Shannon and Fartun Abdisalaan, who together are working to improve the lot of women in Mogadishu, Somalia, which was "recently named one of the five worst places to be female" and is a place where few on this earth would choose to visit, never mind work. They are being honored today for risking their lives and giving up Western comfort in order to advocate for the human rights, health, safety, opportunity, education, and well-being of women in one of the hardest hit places on the planet.

Lisa Shannon, center and in black, and Fartun Abdisalaan Adan, in blue directly behind her,
surrounded by participants in the new organization Sister Somalia,
which helps Somali victims of gender-based violence.

In an article penned by Shannon, "In Mogadishu: A Lifeline For Somali Rape Victims"
in The New York Times this week, she leads off:
“Why did you come here when no one else does?” The African Union communications director asked us over dinner at its compound in Mogadishu. Good question. We were warned against it, especially by war-zone regulars. It’s been called the most dangerous city—or place—on earth. In fact, we had to delay our trip for two weeks due to multiple suicide bombings and riots inside the area controlled by Mogadishu’s transitional government (TFG). So, why go? I gave the short answer, “We’re supporting a local social entrepreneur in launching a sexual violence hotline.”
But the real answer was more complicated. Somalia bothers me. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident was tragic not only for the loss of United States servicemen, but because many experts credit this loss with a shift in American public sentiment and policy toward mass atrocity in Africa. In effect, we collectively flipped off our empathy switch, approaching African crises like Rwanda, Congo and Darfur as “Operation Not Worth It.” But no country has been more written off than Somalia. And in Somalia, no group has been more written off than women.
Abdisalaan's husband, Elman, was a human rights worker who was murdered in 1996. After escaping to Canada to raise her children there, she returned to Mogadishu in 2007 to continue his work and is the founder of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center. Counseling and other services are provided to the survivors of gender violence, the nearly universal female genital mutilation practiced in Somalia, and all sorts of struggles the women endure due to the chaos and conflicts in their country.
And then there is Al-Shabab. The radical, militant Islamic group linked to Al-Qaeda rules 90% of central and south Somalia with utter impunity. Not only do they abduct and imprison through forced marriage, terrorize and gang rape. If women complain, they are often accused of adultery and speaking against the brotherhood, punishable by death. The execution methods of choice: Stoning or beheading.
Abdisalaan founded Sister Somalia, a program in collaboration with Shannons' new organization, A Thousand Sisters, which offers the only sexual violence hotline in Mogadishu, provides counseling, business startup advice, and also works to move survivors and their children away from their attackers. "Each woman who walks through the door will also receive a letter from a 'sister' abroad," writes Shannon. "We hope to raise $120,000 per year to make it happen. How is a broke activist like me planning to pull this off? Just like every stage of my journey with Congo, I don’t know exactly. But I’m betting we can find at least 1,000 Americans who would welcome the opportunity to show up for women in Somalia, through writing a letter or giving at least $10 per month."

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