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A young woman leads in dispute resolution

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Everyone is impressed by Khowla Mohamed Abdow. She’s competent, helpful and hardworking. At 25 years old, she’s the coordinator of Baidoa’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre in South West Somalia, a Ministry of Justice facility supported by UNDP, and funded by the European Union, where local people can come for help solving arguments ranging from land theft to domestic abuse.

The centre offers a safe place where opposing parties can either talk things through — sometimes de-escalating situations that could turn into serious violence — or put their disputes before a panel of male and female elders for an independent decision.

Khowla Mohamed Abdow
Khowla Mohamed Abdow – Copyright: UNDP

It also operates a support hotline and runs community outreach programmes and literacy classes for local policewomen. Coordinating all this is big responsibility for someone not long out of university, but Khowla is used to major challenges.

Born in Baidoa, she moved to Kenya as a young child to escape civil war. The family settled in Mandera, a border town at the meeting point of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.

And the move paid off. After high school Khowla went on to Mt Kenya University in Nairobi to study Public Administration. Even at 18, she knew society could be better and she wanted to play a part in improving it.

Khowla Mohamed, and the traditional elderly argue a physical assault case that is handled by center
I used to hear from my mum and dad, and also from the radio, about how women were mistreated and how they were forced to get married. And I was inspired by a quote from Audre Lorde: 'I am not free when any other women is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from mine.'
- Khowla Mohamed Abdow

In 2018, Khowla returned to Somalia and found a job with the Danish Refugee Council as a case worker. She started visiting internally displaced persons (IDP) camps to help fill out refugee applications and also helped abused women get medical care.

Statistics are hard to come by in Somalia, but globally one in three women experience domestic violence and NGOs report that local cases have increased during the pandemic. At the same time, there is little support and fewer than one in ten police officers is a woman.


Khowla Mohamed, at a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Boiwda
Khowla Mohamed, at a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Boiwda – Copyright: UNDP

There was a case that particularly moved her in the IDP camp. A married woman was raped, but when the elders found out that she was married, they didn’t take it seriously. So in the end, the rapist’s family just paid some money to the woman’s family and there were no more consequences.

At the dispute resolution centre, many of the cases involve violence against women. Rape case have gone up, in particular since COVID-19.

There are cultural norms that say a man is always right and he can even beat women — and women believe this. I think it is partly because they lack education and so they don’t know their own rights. Families tell women to get married early, so they drop out of school, but if a woman has education, she won’t allow a man to abuse her or neglect her.
- Khowla Mohamed Abdow

Khowla is a lesson for the community an example of what women can achieve in managerial positions. The centre she manages is known throughout Southwest State thanks to radio awareness programmes and outreach with displacement camps.

But her influence stretches further than that. As a trainer in non-violent communications, she has taught people from Puntland and Somaliland so that they can bring the same dispute-resolution techniques to their own communities.

Khowla is proud of these achievements, but argues that larger, structural changes are needed if women are to be free from exploitation.

Community elder Adan Gawan helps resolve local disputes
Community elder Adan Gawan helps resolve local disputes – Copyright: UNDP
We need a system that provides support for women’s rights, advocacy and empowerment. It would help to have more women MPs and for them to be the directors general of the ministries. You won’t find a single female Director General in Southwest State. Even at the Ministry of Women, the Director General is a man!”
- Khowla Mohamed Abdow
Khowla Mohamed Abdow
Khowla Mohamed Abdow – Copyright: UNDP

As well as the discrimination, there are huge disincentives for women to take on these roles. Khowla’s job at the centre, and her standpoint on women’s rights make her a target. For Khowla the mission is worth the risk.

And when she’s under pressure, she thinks back on the words of feminist poet who inspired her: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”-  Audre Lorde.

Original article published by UNDP.