WHD: Providing Somali women with dignity

17 August, 2012
13 August 2012, Somalia: Mama Amina with children. Credit: OCHA
13 August 2012, Somalia: Mama Amina with children. Credit: OCHA
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Menstruation is not a word commonly associated with the humanitarian agenda, nor is it a subject many Somalis would be comfortable discussing in public. But Somali aid worker Amina Hagi Elmi is a tireless advocate for hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalia women, ensuring that they have access to sanitary cloths and basic hygiene when they menstruate.

“Women’s needs, including the need for dignity and respect, do not disappear in the face of conflict, drought and other adversity,” says Amina.  

“When everything else grinds to a halt, including basic services like water, health and food supplies, the menstrual cycle continues, oblivious of war or displacement,” she says, adding that women facing such life-threatening crises are frequently caught off-guard with no access to sanitary and protective items.

Affectionately known as Mama Amina, her commitment to providing “dignity kits” to displaced women was triggered by her own experience. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, her family fled to Balcad, 35 kms north-east of their home in Mogadishu. About 10 days later, her period started.

“I could not stand up for fear of embarrassment. But I collected myself, used an extra scarf I had and got on with the chores,” she says. She was responsible for caring for her family and could not allow menstruation to be an impediment.

For Amina, that day was a turning point that led her to devote herself to serving displaced people, particularly women and children. In 1992, she founded the non-governmental organization Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC) to work on behalf of vulnerable displaced women and children, and to campaign for the provision of dignity kits. The kits include washable sanitary cloths, underwear, dresses, shawls, petticoats, head scarves and soap. These items fulfil basic hygiene needs and prevent potential health hazards for women and young girls. Other women’s organizations also took up the call.

Amina’s campaign has paid off. In 2011, the Shelter Cluster, which helps displaced people with temporary shelter and essential household items, started to distribute the kits as part of its emergency assistance package.

Amina helps Somalis to help other Somalis. “I mobilize wealthy people in Mogadishu to donate to the displaced,” she says. She also lobbies the United Nations and international NGOs for funding.

I am particularly grateful to the Common Humanitarian Fund, which provides funds through the Shelter Cluster.”

With support from the Common Humanitarian Fund’s emergency reserve fund, SSWC has provided shelter and non-food items, including the dignity kit, to 62,000 displaced people in Banadir (Mogadishu) and Lower Shabelle regions since 2011. SSWC staff also distribute food and provide water, sanitation services and shelter in other parts of southern Somalia.

Mama Amina is a pillar of hope to thousands of women and children in the Zona-K settlements in Mogadishu’s Hodan district. To mark World Humanitarian Day, she distributed blankets, soap and food to 100 families.

“Mama Amina is like a mother to all of us, and even when she cannot help us she listens to our problems,” said Saido Ahmed, an IDP in Mogadishu. “I received a dignity kit from her and it has been very helpful.”

Amina says she hopes that on World Humanitarian Day, 19 August, people will be moved to help each other, both in Somalia and beyond.

Reporting by Rita Maingi, OCHA Somalia