Children of Somalia

Realizing Children’s Rights in Somalia

Children in Somalia are consistently unable to enjoy fulfilment of their rights due to the severely difficult context in which they live. Children are vulnerable to serious risks which undermine their safeguarding including: forced displacement, access to education, recruitment as child soldiers, sexual abuse, marriage and child labour.

Children’s Rights Index: 3,60 / 10
Black level :
Very serious situation

Population: 15.8 million
Pop. ages 0-14:
42 %

Life expectancy: 61.70 years
Under-5 mortality rate:
 104 ‰

Somalia at a Glance

Humanitarian crisis

Somalia is one of the world’s most fragile states. The decades-long humanitarian crisis in Somalia is a protracted complex emergency consisting of devastating drought, flooding, malnutrition, food-insecurity, disease, war and the internal displacement of over 2.6 million people.

The most pressing needs of affected people – as identified by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – include access to basic services, protection of vulnerable groups of internally displaced persons from abuse including sexual and gender-based violence, providing livelihood opportunities, increased resilience and needs of ‘hard-to-reach’ populations who are affected disproportionately (OCHA, 2017).

Somalia is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 43% of its population living in extreme poverty (on less than 1USD per day). Somalia’s young population is comprised largely of children (42% of the population is children between 0 – 14 years old) and of nomadic pastoralists who account for over a quarter of the people in the country.

Post-colonial era

Historically, Somalia has endured over 100 years of violent British and Italian colonialism, which ended as recently as 1960 after which Somalia swiftly accrued a mountain of debt, partly due to reckless lending. Consequently, the IMF continues to block the nation’s access to certain urgently-needed funds (Guardian, 2017).

Although the Dervish movement in Somalia successfully repelled British colonial forces on four separate occasions, ultimately, over a century of brutal European colonialism heavily contributed to internal divisions in Somalia today and the diverse problems the country continues to face. Child rights in Somalia thus unfold in the complex context of fresh post-colonialism, post-genocide (of people in the Isaaq clan), the climate emergency, war and the neoliberal international order.

Somalia can be a deeply difficult place to live for children; particularly girls, minority and displaced children. Many measures have been taken by the nation in recent years to improve the child protection framework, but there remain prevalent and immense day-to-day and structural challenges impacting children’s lives.

Status of Children’s Rights [1]

Somalia was congratulated by the UN for ratifying the Child Rights Convention in 2015, the Convention being the primary international legal tool for the protection of children’s rights (UN News, 2015). Subsequently in 2019, Somalia announced its first ever report on the state of child rights in the nation (Goobjoog News, 2019). Moreover, the Somali Penal Code may soon be changed since the ‘Sexual Offences Bill’ is before parliament, with sexual violence currently only an “offence against modesty and sexual honour” according to Somali law.

Unfortunately, though, Somali authorities continue to act unlawfully by detaining hundreds of young boys with ties to al-Shabab and prosecuting children in military courts for terrorism offences, putting them at high risk of abuse (HRW, 2018). Part of the reason is that the Juvenile Justice Law of Puntland defines a child as anyone below 14 years of age, leaving those older than 14 vulnerable to prosecution. The government has made certain efforts to rescue child soldiers, pardon child offenders and rehabilitate them, but much more must be done (Bureau of International Labour Affairs, 2018).

In terms of child labour, Somalia’s labour code stipulates 15 years old as the minimum working age, and 18 as the minimum working age for ‘hazardous work’, providing some framework of legal protection against child labour. In spite of this, according to UNICEF, 49% of children in Somalia work – with girls being disproportionately affected (UNICEF, 2015).

Furthermore, child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, and compulsory state or non-state military recruitment are not prohibited under national law. Free public education is enshrined in article 14 of the General Education Law since 2011, although the state struggles to retain teachers at salaries it can afford. Nonetheless, encouraging actions have been taken with the passing of a bill criminalising trafficking for sexual slavery in 2018, and the drafting of a law on human trafficking in 2017 (Bureau of International Labour Affairs, 2018).

Addressing the Needs of Children

Right to education

Education in Somalia is often informal, and is fraught with gender inequality. Girls and children living in rural areas have significantly reduced access to public schooling (most schools are located in cities). Safety concerns, social norms, female genital mutilation (FGM), low availability of toilets at school and a lack of female teachers all contribute to this complex disparity.

Many girls leave school when they get their first period or when they marry, which often happens before the age of 15. In 2015 UNICEF reported a 30% enrolment rate in Somali schools, with just 40% of those enrolled being girls. Although these enrolment rates are low, ‘informal’ education is prevalent, and takes place within some communities. Local-level community-led initiatives such as education committees and children’s clubs thus play a key role in schooling in Somalia (UNICEF, 2015).

Furthermore, the majority of women’s jobs – particularly in the rural south of Somalia – are crucial jobs which do not require formal education, for example tending to livestock and farming. Nonetheless, there is a large disparity in literacy rate between men and women (UNICEF, 2015). The last full survey of education in Somalia was in 2006, and available information is insufficient (UNICEF, 2016).

Right to health

The infant mortality rate in Somalia is about 63 deaths per 1000 infants and the under 5 mortality rate (U5MR) estimated at 104 deaths per 1000; the 3rd worst in the world in 2015 (UN Data, 2019). Somali children typically die from respiratory and vaccine-preventable illnesses such as malaria and pneumonia, as well as diarrhoea (with cholera epidemics occurring almost every year). At least 400,000 Somali children suffer from acute malnutrition (Guardian, 2017).

Furthermore, the climate emergency’s impact on crop production has been devastating, and almost a third of newborns suffer from low birth weight, partly due to the lack of available prenatal care and education for mothers. Indeed, only 9% of babies are exclusively breastfed, and campaigns to promote breastfeeding are important since breastfeeding brings essential nutrients to the baby and reduces the risk of serious illnesses. Access to medical care is also a major obstacle to good health, particularly for rural and displaced populations.

Right to water and a healthy environment

Flooding and frequent droughts contribute to increasing how Somali people are affected by vulnerability factors, with the UN declaring that 2.1 million Somali people face acute food insecurity – many of whom are children. With the main source of livelihood in the nation being livestock management, this has devastating impacts (UNICEF, 2015). Somalia’s naturally hot and arid climate has been heavily distorted by the climate emergency and increased droughts triggered by climate change.

Access to water is vital then, but only the north and south tend to receive adequate rainfall. Water shortages are common. Some children spend most of their day looking for water and then carrying the heavy load many kilometres home. Diarrhoea is common since the water used is not always clean, and this can be perilous for children, especially young infants.

Right to identity

In Somalia, just 4% of births are registered, despite the fundamental importance of registering births in order to guarantee children’s rights, including their right to an identity. Furthermore, there exists no legal or policy framework for birth registration (UNICEF, 2014). In 2016, UNICEF was supporting the Ministry of Interior in Somaliland to develop a practical system of birth registration and Puntland also expressed interest. The lack of birth registration, though, can endanger children’s rights by preventing the formal recognition of their existence in society, including their name, nationality and their ability to access services.

Risk factors → Country-specific challenges

War and Child Soldiers

Almost 30 years of civil war in Somalia has destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure and institutions and caused countless deaths. Children are victims of killing and serious abuse by all parties to the conflict, indeed, in 2018 the UN documented more cases of children recruited and used as soldiers in Somalia, than in any other country in the world. During 2019, this trend continued with al-Shabab heavily recruiting child soldiers and enacting reprisals against communities that refused to comply.

Children as young as 9 can be enlisted in Somali armed forces, and children are often kidnapped to this end. According to Unicef, the situation is worsening because militia have transformed schools into recruitment centres. Fearing recruitment and their child’s safety, some parents even prefer to separate from their children and send them to refugee camps on the country’s border (UNICEF Somalia, 2016).

The United States of America’s (USA) military continues to conduct airstrike bombings in Somalia, and other military operations which have been proven to kill civilians and are likely to kill and injure children. Equally, al-Shabab continues to conduct indiscriminate attacks against civilians which, in 2019, led to over 750 civilian deaths and injuries. War has heavily affected schools and hospitals, with many damaged or destroyed, and access to them impeded partly by conflict factors.

Girls’ Rights and Displaced Children

There are 2.6 million people internally displaced people (IDPs) in Somalia, with 302,000 people reported to have been displaced in 2019 alone, largely due to conflict and drought (NRC, 2019). People also continue to leave the crisis in Somalia and take refuge in Kenya and Yemen. Girls and women who have been forcibly displaced are at acute risk of sexual and gender-based violence, which is very common.

The UN documented over 100 cases of sexual violence against girls last year, with the egregious cases of 12-year-olds Aisha Ilyas Adan and Najmo Abdikadir Hassan receiving particular attention. Girls from marginalised minority groups, and girls who are disabled are at the highest risk of sexual violence, since they are often invisibilised, inaccessible and with nowhere to report these crimes (UN, 2019).

Rape is widespread and prosecutions for sexual assault are extremely rare, creating a culture of impunity. In addition, Somalia is also home to 35,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Yemen, with 38,000 Somalia refugees who fled to Yemen having returned to Somalia since 2015, all of whom are greatly affected by the country’s insecurity (NRC, 2019).

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) & Child Marriage

UNICEF’s 2016 The State of the World’s Children Report compiles data from 2009-2015 and puts children married between the ages of 15 and 18 at 37% in Somalia. Equally, 46% of girls are cited as going through FGM (which is in decline), with 33% of people in the country reported as believing this practise should end.

However, in 2016 the rate of FGM for women and girls was the highest in the world, at 98% (UNICEF, 2016). The dangerous procedure often takes place without the use of anaesthesia, with a razor blade or a non-sterilized knife. About one out of ten girls die as a result of blood loss or infections caused by this operation.

In Somalia, there are no national laws prohibiting this practice, despite its extreme detriment to girls’ health. There is however legislation being drawn up by Regional authorities for the abandonment of FGM, and in 2016 the Puntland Ministry of Religious Affairs issued a fatwa against FGM (UNICEF, 2016).

Humanitarian Actors

Humanitarian actors in Somalia play a vital, though not unproblematic, role. Over one third of people in the country depend on humanitarian aid for their survival. Some 2 million people most acutely affected by Somalia’s humanitarian crisis are not reached by humanitarian organisations, since they are deemed ‘inaccessible’ (OCHA, 2018).

This is largely due to political and financial obstacles impeding aid work in areas of al-Shabaab (designated terrorist group) occupation. Middle Juba and Lower Shabelle are entirely void of humanitarian organisations (OCHA, 2018) which are concentrated disproportionately in government held urban areas such as Mogadishu (Stoddard et. al., 2016).

Lack of humanitarian negotiation with non-state armed actors plays a role in this failure to access vast populations in urgent need. Of the 262+ humanitarian organisations working in Somalia, only 1 maintains consistent consultation with al-Shabaab for access to the 2 million people living in crisis (Harver, 2016). When directly consulted, Somali communities identified serious failures amongst the hundreds of Humanitarian actors who have intervened in their country. They highlighted their unaddressed needs for more durable capacity-building solutions, many of which were not present in INGO and UN needs analyses.

Education was identified by participants as the second most important need. The education sector receives under one percent of Humanitarian funding (Ground Truth Solutions, 2018). One third of participants felt the aid they received did not prepare them to live without support in the future (Ground Truth Solutions, 2018). Feedback systems are wholly inadequate, and aid workers expressed an unwillingness to share negative feedback from Somali people for fear of financial repercussions from donors (SAVE, 2016). Humanitarian aid remains, nonetheless, critical for the survival of a large portion of children in the country. 

Written by Josie Thum

Last updated on 25 April 2020


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[1] This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Somalia; indeed, one of the many challenges is the scant updated information on Somali children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.