Somaliland looks to be on the verge of enacting a bill that would punish anyone found guilty of a sexual offense.

It’s not that rape is legal in Somaliland, a self-declared republic that broke away from Somalia in 1991 but is not recognized internationally. The penal code recognizes some sexual offenses. Yet they’re so narrowly defined that critics say women and girls remain unprotected. The current penal code refers to sexual offenses by the words “carnal violence” and “acts of lust.”
This month, the lower house of parliament passed “the Somaliland Rape and Sexual Offences Bill,” which criminalizes gender-based violence. VOA Africa reported that the bill was approved by 46 of 51 parliament members.
Getting this far has proven challenging. “Previously many politicians and government officials were denying the existence of rape in Somalia,” says Guleid Ahmed Jama, chairman of the Somaliland Human Rights Centre which advocates for justice for victims in the courts.
If the legislation passes, a person convicted of rape would be sentenced to a minimum of 15 to 20 years in prison. A person who rapes someone under the age of 15 would receive 18 to 22 years or a life sentence if the rapist infects a victim of any age with HIV. The bill also lays out specific punishments for trafficking, gang rape, attempted rape, forced marriage, unwanted touching and other sexual advances.
And it lays out the duties of police officers and the courts in enforcing the law. It mandates that the Supreme Court and the National Judiciary Committee ensure judges be trained to handle and hear sexual offenses
cases. A person accused of a sexual offense would not be allowed to use a victim’s sexual history as evidence in an attempt to be acquitted.
The shift started in 2013, when civil society groups began to work with the House of Representatives to criminalize all sexual offenses. The proposed bill on sexual offenses “was removed from the parliament agenda several times,” according to a written statement from Nafisa Yusuf Mohamed, executive director of the Nagaad Network. She says there were law enforcement officials who accused groups like Nagaad of spreading a myth that sexual assault was a problem in Somaliland.
According to Somaliland Human Rights Centre’s 2017 annual report, 81 rape cases were prosecuted last year — out of some 3.5 million people. But advocates for the new bill believe the actual number is higher. “Even the government institutions who receive the victims do not share the information with civil society. They don’t want the numbers to go out,” says Jama.
Not only have many officials ignored sexual offenses, victims fail to come forward to report crimes. They often don’t want to be known. Ahmed Jama says that if a community were to find out that a woman spoke out about being raped to the police or to her peers, the stigma and discrimination might mean she never marries or often experiences harassment in the streets.
Even though the new bill passed the lower house, Jama is concerned that it could spark debate in the upper house, which has more conservative members than the lower house.

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