MOGADISHU, Somalia—On a warm September morning, behind the towering blast-proof concrete walls of Mogadishu National Police Academy, a batch of young recruits celebrate graduation.
Fatima Abdi Mohamed, 24, is one of six graduating women who are entering Somalia’s nascent national police force. She is the first woman in her family to wear the uniform.
For Mohamed’s entire life, Somalia has been in the throes of war: A decades-long civil war was sparked in 1991, creating a security vacuum that gave way to piracy and the rise of Islamist militant groups, including the al-Qaida-aligned al-Shabab.
She has seen improvement, however, over the last two years and space opening for women to publicly participate in rebuilding the country.
“I realized the situation in my country required young, educated people to contribute,” Mohamed tells TakePart, recalling why she persuaded her family to allow her to join the police on graduation from high school. “In the past, you would see uneducated security forces, but now we are starting to see that educated people are better equipped to understand and establish the rule of law.”
Somalia’s police force is some 7,000 officers strong. Ten percent are women, according to Lt. Col. Zakia Hussen. She says the force recently recruited its first two female SWAT members, adding that “this was unthinkable before today.”
Hussen mentors the women during their months of training. She hails from the expansive Somali diaspora—she was born in the capital city of Mogadishu but educated in London, and she returned to her homeland in 2013. Hussen holds three degrees, including a master’s in international relations, and her high rank earns her respect in a heavily gendered society.
“Women are the backbone of the Somali society. They’re also better skilled in community relations and management skills than the males. The Somali Police Force is in desperate need of such skills, as the long civil war took its toll on the force,” she says.
Police officers, on patrol or overseeing neighborhood checkpoints, are frequently the target of al-Shabab attacks. Mohamed is aware of the danger yet undeterred. “The bombs don’t discriminate, whether you are a police officer or a civilian. Everyone is affected. Part of the reason I joined was in order to fight that,” she says.
Lt. Col. Zakia Hussen, 32, says the number of women recruits is increasing, but women are underrepresented in senior positions. “Personally, I hope to serve as a role model for young females to challenge themselves but also challenge myself to go further,” she says. “Having spent close to four years in Somalia, my hopes for the future are much higher than when I first arrived. This is because I have come to realize that the peace and rule of law that can be seen is driven by the people rather than the government. When the people drive the peace and prosperity there’s little chance for chaos to ensue, even if government breaks down or fails.”
Samira Nuredin Nezar, 19, was born in Norway, raised in Kenya, and came to Somalia to finish high school and join the police. “I came back here because it’s my motherland,” she says. “It was a dream to join the police force as we start to rebuild this country. I saw the situation here, and I felt that the police needed young, educated girls specifically who understand the society in order to work with them.”
Somalia has endured 25 years of civil war, the absence of a functioning government, a ruined economy, and a devastated society. Al-Shabab was officially driven out of Mogadishu by the African Union mission and Somali army troops in 2011. The city remains littered with the shells of destroyed buildings, and attacks by al-Shabab militants are a constant threat. Nevertheless, resilience is evident in the city’s ability to rebuild and reclaim a semblance of normality.
In south-central Somalia, nearly three-quarters of public schools that existed before the civil war have been destroyed. Access to education and employment is tough and often harder for women and girls. The adult literacy rate for women is estimated to be lower than 30 percent. Lt. Col. Hussen says the majority of women in Somalia’s police force are educated, are married, and have children. “The makeup of Somali families who are predominantly extended families means most, if not all, women will be able to serve as police and raise a family too,” she says. “Actually, I have found that women who are mothers tend to be more dedicated to their work; most of them tell me that seeing their kids motivates them to work harder for a peaceful Somalia so the kids can have a better future than their parents.”
Somalia’s security forces, a combination of the army and the police, are dependent on support from African Union Mission in Somalia troops to seize territory from al-Shabab, retain it, and establish and maintain law and order.
Nezar and Mohamed (right) stand at the entrance to Mogadishu National Police Academy on the day of their graduation. According to Lt. Col. Hussen, around 10 percent of the country’s police force is female, which translates into some 750 female officers. The majority of them are stationed in Mogadishu, where they engage in regular street patrols and operate neighborhood checkpoints around the clock.
Nezar says her family tried to dissuade her from joining the police: “My uncles and mum said, ‘Never.’ I am the firstborn child…. I told them that with time things will change in Somalia. Eventually, they had no choice but to accept it, because this is my opinion and my life.”
Somali and international security forces are primary targets for the al-Qaida-linked militia. In July, the group attacked the Mogadishu criminal investigations department, killing at least 10 people. In mid-September a car bomb exploded, killing a prominent Somali general and several of his officers.
“My family remained in Mogadishu throughout the years of war,” Mohamed says. “The bombs don’t discriminate, whether you are a police officer or a civilian. Everyone is affected. Part of the reason I joined was in order to fight that.”
Armed guards patrol Mogadishu’s infamous Liido beach. This spectacular strip of sand and turquoise sea at the heart of the capital city has been the site of repeated brutal attacks by al-Shabab militants, most recently in late August, when a bomb exploded and the beach was stormed. At least 10 people were killed.
Despite the danger of attack—a particular risk on weekends and public holidays—families refuse to be driven away and continue to visit Liido beach.
“Our capacity as police is limited,” says Commissioner Mohammed Hassan Sheikh Hamud. “But we are trying to minimize the attacks coming from al-Shabab; our intelligence teams are working very hard. But you know, someone who wants to die, who wants to explode himself, it is difficult to prevent him. It is difficult to fight and defeat him. But we try in our capacity as police officers to mitigate these risks.”