Somali women journalists boldly work in dangerous conditions

A Somali women-centred journalism association has made history by training fellow journalists in the city of Baidoa on how to cover the first popular vote elections to be held in over 50 years.

The East African country has been wracked by civil war and terrorism. The first popular vote in the destabilised country will be held between 2020 and 2021, a process last seen in 1969.

“This is huge for Somalia, we haven’t seen this in a long time,” said Maryan Seylac, the executive director of

Somali Media Women Association (Somwa).

“The African Union Mission in Somalia gave us training about how to report on the upcoming elections and we are teaching our fellow media workers what we have been taught,” said Seylac, who hopes Somwa will equip journalists from Baidoa with the skills to carry out “balanced” reporting.

Seylac said she was proud of Somwa’s achievements, such as being able to train other journalists. She said women journalists are often undermined in the Somali male-dominated media industry based on cultural norms.

“When I started out, it was dreadful.” she said. However, she said she pressed on as she realised she had to champion for Somali women’s issues which were often misrepresented or erased from Somali media.

Seylac said women’s issues such as the age-old cultural practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) are barely covered in the media. UNICEF’s 2016 data estimates states that as many as 98% of all Somali women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM.

She estimated that about 100 women journalists are part of Somwa, a far cry from the initial four members when she founded the organisation in 2006. Seylac said the organisation works together to advocate and raise awareness for women’s issues such as FGM and the scourge of gender-based violence.

“When I see the work of the women of Somwa, I see their amazing work and I know that my job is done.”

However, Seylac said working as a woman in media is still difficult as women are socially oppressed in a country experiencing political unrest.

Somalia is consumed by civil war and militant disturbance such as that brought by Al-Shabaab, a jihadist fundamentalist group. Information advocators Reporters Without Borders ranks Somali media 164 out of 180 countries on their 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

The index added, “The freedom to inform in Somalia is undermined by corruption, political violence, the central government’s extreme weakness and the fact that non-state entities control much of the country.”

In June, Canadian-Somali journalist Hodan Nalayeh was killed in an Al-Shabaab claimed attack in a hotel siege in Somalia’s city of Kismayo as reported by Al-Jazeera.

“I have lost a lot of colleagues and friends and it’s sad to see them go,” Seylac said.

In light of the onslaught of Somali journalists, Seylac said upcoming journalists need to be strong and courageous. However, she urged them to be careful and not risk sacrificing themselves for a story.

Seylac has covered dangerous political stories having worked for media companies such as Shabelle TV, Royal TV and the Somali Broadcasting Corporation. In 2006, she survived a car bomb suicide attack while covering a parliamentary address of then President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.

“I have worked as a field reporter and when I look back, I feel lucky to have made it out alive,” she said.

Seylec said things things are “changing” in Somali media to be more inclusive of women but added that the industry restricts women from holding managerial roles.

“I blame our male counterparts for keeping the media industry male dominated and male focused. They are not helping us women have senior positions.

“The government needs to back us when it comes to women journalists holding senior positions in the newsroom, and put some sort of quota because women’s issues are best told by women,” Seylac said.

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