Somali leaders are debating a new constitution that protects the right to have an abortion to save the life of the mother, and an international law group says the draft guarantees more fundamental rights than the U.S. Constitution.
That’s one reason some women are celebrating the document and hardline conservatives are protesting some of its more liberal promises.
But some of the rights introduced, such as the right to medical care or clean, potable water, will be hard for the government to guarantee in a country where basic needs like food are not always met. While other elements, such as banning the circumcision of girls, a practice the U.N. says more than 95 percent of women have undergone, will take years to banish.
Somali leaders — 825 of them — began a nine-day meeting on Wednesday to examine, debate and vote on the constitution, a document that’s been years in the making. A vote by the group, known as the National Constituent Assembly, is likely to be held late next week and is a key step in a flurry of political activity in Somalia over the next month.
The U.N. mandate for Somalia’s current government expires on Aug. 20, and Somali leaders are to vote on the constitution, vote in a new 275-member parliament and then vote on a president all before then. If the assembly votes down the constitution, the new parliament will have to debate it and then vote on it.
Somali Prime Minister Abdiwali Mohamed Ali, who for years lived in western New York, called the gathering of Somali leaders a milestone and said the new constitution “is a symbol of justice and equality for our people and country.” He said that the new constitution is only meant to be temporary. The eventual goal is to pass a constitution by countrywide vote, but the security, money and organization needed to hold a nationwide vote is still years away. Al-Shabab militants were pushed out of Mogadishu last year but still rule south-central Somalia.
The current constitution is the Transitional Federal Charter, which was written in 2004. Meant only as a temporary charter, it contains fewer rights than are spelled out in the new draft constitution.
The draft constitution makes it clear that Islamic law is the basis for Somalia’s legal foundation. No religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country and all laws must be compliant with Shariah — Islamic — law. Despite those clauses, the constitution also says that “every person is free to practice his or her religion,” though no other religions are mentioned in the document.
The draft guarantees minority rights but does not mention homosexuality. It says no marriage is legal without the consent “of both the man and woman,” a formula that appears to define marriage as a heterosexual institution but one that also forbids child marriage.
Augustine P. Mahiga, the U.N. representative for Somalia, said the constitution will “bring Somalia into the 21st century on issues such as fundamental human rights and freedoms, including empowerment of women.”
But women’s rights in a country as conservative as Somalia is sparking debate between conservative hard-liners, progressive leaders and women. Draft language in some government documents stipulates that 30 percent of the parliament seats should be held by women, but the draft constitution offers no such guarantee.
“Our religion does not allow women to hold an elected position in the country,” Sheikh Mohamed Abdi, the leader of a Mogadishu mosque. “So this is a clear contradiction to the teaching of Islam.”
The prime minister’s office, in an emailed news release, sent out a picture showing a woman holding up a sign at the meeting of 825 leaders on Wednesday: “Where is our 30 percent?” it said in English.
“We believe this is the best constitution we have ever seen in Somalia,” said Salado Nur, a member of the assembly. “We hope the violation of women’s rights will decrease or be stopped completely.”
The English translation of the Somali language constitution is 88 pages long. It was drafted by international law experts and members of the Somalia Diaspora who have lived in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia, said Kym Smithies, a U.N. spokeswoman.