Supporting women journalists in one of Africa’s most dangerous countries for reporters

As the level of harassment against reporters rises in Somalia, so does the voice of the country’s women journalists. The Somali Women Journalists Organization has matured over the past eight years and is now a key player when it comes to gender related issues in the conflict-ridden country.

Farhiya Mohamed Kheyre was only 20 years old when in 2013 she founded the Somali Women Journalists Organization (SWJO), which was Somalia’s first and, at the time, only organisation to promote the rights – and address the plights – of the country’s women reporters.

Kheyre had been working in the media industry since she was 15. Driven by a passion for journalism, she had worked hard and learned a lot, but also experienced unjust terms. For instance, she went without salary for three years.

“And it was not only me. There were a lot of women journalists working under the same conditions as I was, deprived of their rights and nobody was speaking for us,” she says on a Zoom connection from Mogadishu, Somalia.

This prompted her and some friends to come together and create SWJO.

Building the organisation

Today, eight years on, the reality for women journalists in Somalia remains dire, but now they have someone to speak up for them.

In the first years, though, Farhia Kheyre and the rest of the team knew nothing about running an organisation, raising funds, writing proposals or doing advocacy work. It was only when IMS-Fojo came onboard in 2016, things started to gain momentum, Kheyre explains, speaking almost non-stop, eager to share. Since then, SWJO has grown in size, capacity and influence.

IMS-Fojo’s support has focused on capacity building and institutional support to enhance the association’s voice on matters relating to its two main areas of focus: ensuring change at policy level and changing the attitudes towards women working in the media.

One of SWJO’s more impressive achievements is the Somali Gender Declaration from 2018, which is to date signed by 47 media outlets across the country. With their signatures, the managements of the media outlets agreed on taking steps to e.g., introduce strategies to prevent gender-based violence in the workplace, provide women’s restrooms and secure maternity leave.

Snowball effect

There is a keen difference between signing something and acting upon it, but changes are happening. And one change seems to lead to another.

When the first media house granted a women employee three months of maternity leave, SWJO started to spread the news, and others followed suit. The same is the case with promotions. Where women journalists before were not given decision-making roles, this is now happening in more and more media entities across the country.

Furthermore, in some places, whenever a new person is hired to fill out a senior position, the Gender Declaration is part of the document handover. This is, to Farhia Kheyre, proof that managers and directors take the declaration seriously and respect the SWJO.

“I am overwhelmingly happy. I see that we are making a change and how far it goes, and that is really encouraging. If IMS-Fojo had not decided to support us in 2016, we would not be the organisation we are today, and all these changes would not have happened,” she says.

As a much stronger and more confident organisation, SWJO is now also attracting new donors such as UNICEF and the United Nations Support Office for Somalia (UNSOM), and the US Embassy and is looking into contributing to the review of Somalia’s media law.

Farhia Kheyre herself participated in the last review committee in 2014, but back then she “did not know anything”, as she says. Today, she has a much stronger foundation to comment from.

“I don’t guarantee that the members of parliament will accept our suggestions for improvement, but we are not going to just surrender to them. We will push this even if it takes years.”

Silence is not the right choice

The fight for women journalists’ rights is not an easy one, especially not in Somalia. The East African country has been tormented by decades of open-ended conflict between clan-based militias, the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab and state forces. In February 2020, Amnesty International published a report documenting a rise in the level of abuse, targeted attacks, harassment, arbitrary arrests and other types of intimidation against journalists by state officials and authorities.

Somalia is, Deutche Welle writes, one of Africa’s most dangerous places for reporters.

It can seem foolheartedly hazardous for Kheyre and the team at SWJO to continue on, but they do so, nonetheless.

“I was born in Somalia during the conflict. I was raised and have experienced a lot of traumatic things. Also, painfully, a lot of my colleagues were killed, some of them I worked closely with, and their cases have not been solved. Impunity is still standing out. But … feeling all of that does not make us keep silent towards what is happening, because that is not the right choice,” Farhia Kheyre says. She continues: “The safety training that we have got from IMS-Fojo is a life lesson for us, it is not just a training. We adapt it every day, every hour, every minute, and we have no choice but to face the reality and to not keep silent. We cannot keep silent, and I am happy that I am making change regardless of the dangers I am facing.”