When she arrived in Somalia for her tour of duty four years ago, Sheema Sen Gupta had had more than a decade’s experience as a child protection specialist with Unicef.

She’d worked in various countries like Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka where she had seen and dealt with the tragic consequences of natural calamities and conflicts.

But nothing prepared her for the brutalities that confronted her in Somalia.

“I arrived in Somalia in November 2011. On the day I arrived, (the jihadist group) Al-Shabaab, which had full control of South and South-Central Somalia, called an emergency meeting and banned 16 agencies from areas under their rule. These were, of course, the worst-affected areas. Unicef was among the 16.

“Somalia was going through a bad famine. It was so bad, populations were moving from drought-stricken areas to other parts of the country which were more accessible to aid. So we focused on the areas we could access like Mogadishu, which saw a large influx of Somalis.

A science lesson in progress at Al Miskin Allawenidi IDP primary school in Waberi distrect. The Somali government, in partnership with Unicef, launched the Go 2 School campaign to get one million Somali children into school.

A science lesson in progress at Al Miskin Allawenidi IDP primary school in Waberi district. The Somali government, in partnership with Unicef, launched the Go 2 School programme to get one million Somali children back into classrooms.

“Many families became headed by women because the men went out to look for work and for food. As they moved towards Mogadishu, the women had to pass through various checkpoints manned by Al-Shabaab or clan militia. At every point, they had to ‘pay’ to get through. Payment wasn’t in the form of money – they had to leave their daughters behind or be raped by the militia before they could proceed.

“It was brutal, ugly and very dire,” recounts Sheema, who heads the Unicef child protection team in Somalia.

They got to work immediately. Within a month of her arrival, Sheema and her team started initiatives to help Somali women and children deal with rape and sexual abuse, reaching out to some 5,000 women and children.

“This was the tip of the iceberg. These were only the women and children we could access. There were so many more. In the last three years, we have provided services to some 15,000 women and children,” says Sheema.

A country in peril

Since the overthrow of Somali president Muhammed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been ruled by conflicting warlords and the Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab.

Hundreds and thousands of Somalis have been killed in ongoing conflicts or died from famine. The absence of a legitimate government meant there was no formal recourse for injustice, particularly for women and children who are the most vulnerable in any society.

“There is no law that addresses gender violence or rape. The fate of a raped woman is decided by warlords – the men decide if a woman has in fact been raped and what the punishment is. Usually the guilty party has to give the woman’s clan or family livestock or something. The woman is not consulted or given the chance to speak,” relates Sheema who was back in Malaysia on a one-month break recently to visit family.

In Somalia, women and children face the threat of rape every day. A third of those who are raped and sexually violated, says Sheema, are children.

A whole generation of Somali people have never been able to walk down the street without the presence of armed men.

South and South-Central Somalia are ruled by the Al-Shabaab militia.

“As an aid worker, I am familiar with cases of women and children who are vulnerable to violence. But to actually see the situation in Somalia was heartbreaking,” says Sheema who has heard stories she will never forget.

She was at Somali humanitarian Fartuun Adan’s rape crisis centre for women and children when an elderly woman came running in for help.

“She was bruised and came in shouting and screaming, obviously distraught. She is a grandmother who cares for her two grandchildren. The night before, armed men had come into her tent and raped her in front of the children.

“The men pushed her down, kicked her and raped her. But all she could think about was her two grandchildren. She said she just wanted to save them, especially her grandson, from the rape as it would scar him.

“She pleaded with the armed militia but they insisted the children watch. And as she was being raped and beaten, all she prayed for was that they didn’t break her bones because she would not be able to care for the children.

“To see her grit and her strength was something else. Not once did she address the rape or assault she suffered. It was all about survival … all about her grandchildren,” relates Sheema, who was deeply moved by the encounter.

She spent hours at the centre listening to women and children share their stories of rape and violence.

“I knew then that Unicef could not stop our work there,” says Sheema, a clinical psychologist by training.

Mutilated girls

Apart from addressing gender-based violence, Unicef’s focus is also on child protection.

“Unicef’s programmes look at children who have fallen off the grid … marginalised children who are subjected to exploitation, abuse, neglect and violence,” says Sheema.

Conscription of children into the armed forces, with Al-Shabaab being the biggest recruiter, is another major issue Unicef works on.

Unicef also has to deal with female genital mutilation (FGM) – the cutting, partial or total removal of external female genitalia for cultural or religious reasons. About 97% of girls in Somalia undergo FGM, usually performed by traditional practitioners with a knife or razor on girls between the ages of four and 10.

She relates another disturbing story. “There was a woman who came to the (crisis centre) with her 13-year-old daughter. The girl’s head was down and she was still. But when she shifted, I could see a puddle of blood where she had stood.

“I learnt that it was not their first visit to the centre. They had come four days earlier for medical treatment for the young girl who had been raped. Any rape is brutal but when you have had FGM and have been stitched up, it’s even more brutal.

“The doctor who treated her forbade the mother from stitching her up again. But the mother did it anyway, so the wound got infected. The mother was in tears as she asked us, ‘What was I to do? I had to stitch her up …if anyone knew she had been raped, she would never get married!’ ”

Sheema says she is horrified at the brutality that Somali women and girls live with.

Somalia's war has made women and children extremely vulnerable.

The war has made women and children vulnerable to sexual brutality.

In Somalia, she explains, if a woman is raped, her husband has the right to divorce her and take her children away from her. So she loses her dignity and her children.

“That is why many don’t report their rape. When they do come in, it is because of complications. However, because of the outreach work of Unicef and other NGOs, more women come for aid within 72 hours of being raped,” she says.

To encourage more women to come in for treatment and help, the Unicef crisis centres are called livelihood centres.

“This way, the women who come in don’t have to worry that society knows they have been raped. We offer skills training and livelihood training programmes which empower the women and keep them safer.

A programme that was successful was the one that teaches women to make fuel-efficient stoves which use husks as fuel instead of firewood. This was important as many women were raped when they went out looking for wood for their stoves,” explains Sheema.

Reason for hope

As dire as the situation is in Somalia, Sheema is hopeful that change is on the horizon.

“Things have already changed. The country has a government in place now after some 20 years. The international community has been working with the new government on a compact which addresses five state-building goals, one of which is justice and security which has an impact on our work with child protection,” says Sheema.

Witnessing the change that is slowly taking place in the country, she says, is exciting.

“Being in Somalia is gratifying and exciting because it is a country starting all over again. I have so much respect for Somalis. They are so resilient. You would imagine them to be broken but no, they are very proud. They get hit and they start again.

“There is so much promise with a new government that is very committed. Women and children in Somali have no access to social justice. But now, three years on, there is a sexual offence Bill waiting to be passed in parliament. So, there is progress.”

But Sheema says it is frustrating that there is still no peace, even with peacekeeping forces present.

“There is a whole generation of Somalis who have never experienced peace and who have never been able to walk down a street without seeing armed men.

“And there is no social work structure in the country. Conversely, there is a strong civil society movement in some parts of the country and Somalis who were educated before the conflict are actively helping the marginalised groups,” says Sheema.

In their four years in Somalia, Sheema and her team of 26 aid workers have achieved some measure of success in their child protection work.

Sheema Sen Gupta had worked with Unicef for more than a decade before her posting to Somalia. But nothing prepared her for the dire situation of women and girls in the conutry which had been without government for 20 years.

Nothing could have prepared Sheema for the suffering she saw in Somalia.

Apart from helping the thousands of women and children in crisis, they were instrumental in getting the country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It is a positive step towards protecting and promoting the rights of children in the country.

But Sheema believes that it is time for her to move on.

The Al-Shabaab attacks on the UN and the African Union Mission in Somali earlier this year affected her deeply.

“It was emotionally draining. I was so angry. We are humanitarian workers … how dare they? I still grieve for my colleagues. It was an indication that it was time to move. I didn’t want to carry this anger with me. Although I am not angry anymore, it is time.

“Somalia has been stressful and physically draining partly because we travel so much. I live in Nairobi with my husband and two dogs and spend 60% of my time in Somalia. It definitely takes its toll.

“I wanted to see the ratification of the CRC which we did at the end of December, and I think things are in place. I really feel hopeful and believe that this government and the upcoming elections will bring some progress,” she says.