How can I marry a Somali girl

Hanan Ibrahim: "We wear the veil out of fear"

They see their children die - from hunger, thirst, malaria. Others fall victim to attacks. Women in Somalia face violence and death on a daily basis. Hanan Ibrahim decided to help them.

Hanan Ibrahim does educational work and offers psychological support. In doing so, she puts herself in mortal danger.

Ms. Ibrahim, Somalia has been in the civil war since 1991. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. They help the women on site. How would you describe their situation?

Hanan Ibrahim: The situation of Somali women breaks my heart. They do not have access to health care. The poverty is very great. There is nothing, everything is missing.

What problems do families have to struggle with in everyday life?

Our child mortality rate is among the highest in the world. At the same time, people have to deal with malaria, hunger, cholera, genital mutilation and of course HIV. There is practically no health system and no psychological support either. But that is important: Somalia has been in the civil war for so long. People need someone to talk to.

To what extent does female genital mutilation play a role in everyday life?

This is a difficult subject because it is a cultural problem. It has nothing to do with religion, it is more of a spiritual attitude. People do it because it is expected of them. There is also a lot of cultural pressure, especially from older people.

But the mothers know what to do to their children. Why don't you protect your daughters?

Because it's a common attitude. People think it's a shame if they don't let this be done to their girls. They are afraid of bad gossip, including that they will otherwise not be able to marry off their daughters. It's bad what people think. But that's just how everyone does it. That is why the perception of Somalis must also be changed. It happens quite often that girls die during genital mutilation. You bleed to death because it is done in the worst of conditions.

Who is doing it?

It's old women who do it.

Old women mutilate young ones?

See, that's the problem. It's a cultural thing that doesn't follow any logic. There are also many husbands who don't want any of this at all. It is the mothers who initiate this.

And how should this be prevented in the future?

You have to educate people. Go to schools, talk to the teachers and parents, but above all to the women.

You say there is no health care?

We have hospitals, but there is nothing inside.

What do you mean there is nothing inside?

There is nothing inside. I had to go to the hospital myself after an attack. In fact, I even had a VIP room there: but there was only one mattress in the room. That's VIP with us. That's why I always say: If the hospitals in Europe dispose of their old beds, then they should send them to Somalia. We need them.

Aren't women then afraid of having their children in hospital?

I'll tell you something, a lot of women have children at home and then they bleed to death. Because first you have to cut them open when they get married, then sew them up again, then cut them open again when they have a child. It's just sick. And we hardly have any midwives who help with the birth. That's the biggest problem. And by the time the women are taken to the hospital, it will be too late.

How do they all hold out?

Somali women are very strong. But they are also very vulnerable. In the end, it's the men who bear the guns. Women want peace. The African Union is now trying to drive the al-Shabaab (Islamist terrorists, note) out of the country. The al-Shabaab also terrorize women. They say what to wear. I don't think anyone likes to wear these clothes (niqab, note). But we do it out of fear. Because otherwise you won't be able to leave your house. Otherwise they'll kidnap you.

Doesn't anyone fight back?

I think the attitudes of Somali women have changed. They band together because they want to be heard. They want everyone to know that they are no longer willing to go along with this nonsense. You are ready to fight. Somali women are now even at meetings of the United Nations. The world should know that they no longer support this madness. Enough is enough!

Many people think that Somali women allow themselves to be oppressed. They show a different picture.

Oh, these are very strong women. It's just because of the radical groups.

In such a situation, don't many people want to leave the country?

Where should they go They would lose their children walking. It is better to support them locally.

How do you try to support women with your work?

We try to encourage them and give them psychological support. Most of them have experienced terrible things. And they have no one to talk to about it. We also ensure that girls are trained as midwives. There are far too few.

How else can your country be helped?

Everything that Austrians can give is very welcome in Somalia. Everything. Up to the old computer. We train women on them. Education is important. When a woman is educated, she is an informed mother who in turn can pass on her knowledge to her children. Investing in women is important. They are the backbone of society.

Lately Somalia has also been associated with pirates in many ways.

So yeah, that always comes to mind when people think of Somalia. Pirates. But these are terrorists and criminals. They have nothing to do with our society.

What survival strategies do Somali women use to avoid despair?

Basically, Somali women are very strong. But of course they too lose hope if they lose a child, for example. But you have to go on somehow. What else should they do? So I think a lot of women hold on to their beliefs as a result. This also makes them very religious. You hope in God.

The al-Shabaab militias are recruiting many children. What do mothers do so that they do not lose their children?

You can't do anything. The problem is that the girls and boys have no employment. Anything to distract them. The poverty is very great. Then the men come and give the boys some money and a mobile phone. And the children go with you voluntarily.

They work directly in Mogadishu. Is your job very dangerous?

Yes, it is very dangerous. Even if I don't get death threats because I work in hiding. When I go out, I hide behind a niqab. Nobody knows my face. Which is also good. For example, I only have a small laptop that can fit in my handbag. If I went out with a laptop they would kill me instantly.

Aren't you afraid of being betrayed?

But. Because do you know what is really sad? That you never know who to trust. Since the al-Shabaab were driven out of the country, they have been fighting by all means. And they changed their tactics. They are now also putting on women's clothes for their attacks. Or they use donkeys or children to carry their bombs. If a child comes along on the street, it could be a child soldier. You don't know. You must never trust anyone. Never.

Do you feel safe at some point?

No, never, the country is never safe for a second. Something can happen at any time.

("Die Presse", print edition, February 19, 2012)