Issue 75 - Article 8

Addressing the systematic barriers facing women and girls in the aid system in Somalia

May 31, 2019
Degan Ali and Deqa Saleh
Adeso Africa

In the twenty-first century more than ever before, we’re seeing positive global initiatives to tackle gender inequality, gender- based violence and other gender-related issues. However, we’re also getting more reports of abuses and inequalities affecting women and girls, including in the aid sector. When I decided to move back to Somalia in the early 1990s my goal was not only to help Somalis deal with the effects of the civil war, but also to help women and girls take on more leadership and decision- making roles. I founded the grassroots organisation Adeso (African Development Solutions), then called Horn Relief, in order to meet this objective.

Adeso worked with traditional leaders and elders, as well as existing women’s community groups and individual women who wanted to come together in their communities. We designed programmes that specifically included women, for example in non-formal education for pastoral youth, environ- mental programmes and peace-building initiatives, as well as leadership and governance. Women usually know their communities better than men: who’s the most vulnerable, and what the needs are. We felt that their inclusion in decision- making and leadership roles would help create more resilient and sustainable communities, not least because, as a result of the conflict, women were becoming breadwinners and taking on more of a decision-making role in their households.

Bocame local council. © Suban Mohamed.

Programming and implementation

For Adeso’s first large-scale cash project, in 2003, our donor required that we ensure that all the beneficiaries were women. Cash assistance was new and controversial: donors were risk- averse, and even the most progressive were looking for ways to reduce the risks of misuse or misappropriation, and felt that targeting women ensured that the money would be spent productively. Although we felt very uncomfortable with this demand we complied with it, and prioritised women-headed households and structurally vulnerable groups. For married couples, we registered the woman and ensured she received the transfer. After two cash projects it was clear that this was disrupting societal norms and causing tensions between men and women. One day, while undertaking registration in a community, a man stood up and challenged us, saying: ‘Do you think that I am capable of buying Qat while my children starve? What kind of man do you think I am?’. This was a pivotal moment for me in understanding two things: one, that doing gender work cannot be at the expense of dehumanising men; and second, that we should never have an outsider, whether a donor or international humanitarian actor, drive the design of aid programmes.

From this point on we explicitly stopped saying to communities that all beneficiaries had to be women. Instead, we made sure that our cash programmes used vulnerability-based targeting, and that we tried to engage and consult women (as well as youth and minorities) in the mobilisation and registration process. Women were deliberately involved in community decision- making structures, such as village committees, and we held private meetings with women to develop and review registration lists. For women to fully participate we recognised that we needed to create a safe and private space for them to speak directly to project staff, without creating conflict in house- holds and communities. This led to a natural process where 50–70% of direct beneficiaries were women. We strongly believe that this is one of the key factors that contributed to a truly inclusive and effective targeting methodology called Inclusive Community Based Targeting (ICBT). The key features of ICBT are community mobilisation, setting up village commit- tees, developing targeting criteria, beneficiary identification (by the committee), verification (by the agency), registration and distribution or implementation.

Adeso trained a large number of INGOs and UN agencies throughout Africa on this approach. It was a shock to learn that what we assumed to be standard was actually extremely uncommon, with traditional community engagement processes led by male staff who engaged with traditional male leadership structures, marginalising women and minority groups in the process. Adeso documented the ICBT approach and developed a training manual for Adeso staff. In 2012, we developed this into a training methodology, with funding from USAID and the European Commission, for local and international NGOs and UN agencies throughout Africa.

In our advocacy work we promoted women’s participation in political processes. Adeso helped women to organise and develop advocacy skills to promote women’s participation in political processes. We also advocated for 30% of members of parliament and representatives at the municipality level to be women. This led to the establishment of local councils in Puntland State. The movement that originated from Puntland spread to the Federal Government and other states throughout the country. Adeso’s successful organising and training of women’s groups also ensured that women were effectively represented in municipal structures that UN agencies were working to develop. While the process of developing these structures was flawed in our opinion (they adopted a top-down approach and the process was dominated by men and elders), we tried to correct this by encouraging women at the grassroots to put pressure on men to ensure that they had a space in these municipal structures. This eventually led to 17.8% of women being selected in 10 municipalities throughout Puntland.


How inclusive of women was Adeso? How could we ensure that women could compete against more qualified and educated men for employment? Adeso decided to create internship positions in all its offices, almost all of which were allocated to local women from the communities we were working in. Where we could, we also introduced affirmative action in employment, even if on paper a woman was slightly less qualified than a man. In this way, female project beneficiaries became colleagues, who went on to work for UN agencies and INGOs. Many of these women occupied traditionally male-dominated positions, such as project management and finance. We headhunted female interns and staff, as well as reaching out to community leaders, especially female and youth leaders, to attract women interested in working with us.


We also sought to include women in the Adeso supply chain. For men in the organisation in control of operations and procurement processes, it was initially extremely difficult to recognise that it was their responsibility to seek out women in the market who could meet our requirements as suppliers and service providers, and support them in effectively responding to tenders and competing against much more experienced men. We had to identify business women who could secure capital, and then train them on our requirements and tendering processes. We began in one location and one procurement, for fuel for our vehicles. The woman we identified quickly learned the business and later became a successful supplier for Adeso, and one of the biggest traders in the district.

So what?

First and foremost, Adeso understood the context and knew how to effectively navigate the cultural norms and values of Somali society. We were locally established and driven, not by external influences, but by the desire to ensure culturally and religiously appropriate systemic change. This intimate understanding allowed us to navigate through difficult cultural terrain that international actors would have found very difficult to understand, let alone successfully manoeuvre through. We also realised that, to achieve our objective of fully integrating women into our work, we could not limit ourselves to project and beneficiary level. We needed to have the courage to confront our own organisational culture and barriers to procurement and recruitment.

We didn’t always succeed, and we weren’t always able to introduce these attitudes and ways of working consistently throughout the organisation. We were most successful where we had champions who genuinely had ownership of gender inclusion and were able to consistently lead and challenge the local team and our senior leadership. At times this led to tensions within the organisation as many of the men in the senior leadership team did not want to work in such radically different ways, even though some had been trained on gender issues. It is essential to include this in the recruitment process before potential staff are hired and, even more importantly, that an organisation effectively institutionalises this way of working into every facet, and ensures that new staff at all levels are properly inducted and trained in understanding the organisational culture and in working in this new way.

In our work over the years, we believe the strategies we have used have enabled us to address some of the systematic barriers faced by women and girls in the aid system. In order for this to work you need to involve all stakeholders, men and women, so that everyone is working in a collective effort towards a common goal and do not feel excluded from the process. You also have to have an intimate understanding of the context and be willing to go beyond programming and implementation as a humanitarian actor when promoting gender equality.

Degan Ali is the Executive Director of Adeso Africa. Deqa Saleh is Cash and Social Protection Advisor at Adeso.


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