Somalia I never expected to give birth during a crisis like this

Somalia is experiencing its third drought in less than a decade. The country’s droughts are becoming more frequent and intense because of climate change. Women and girls are bearing the brunt.

Somalia’s drought has displaced 1.4 million people, the majority from rural communities. Many have endured incredibly risky journeys to find relative safety in one of the world’s most extreme environments.

While the drought and ongoing humanitarian crisis affects almost everyone, vulnerable women and girls are disproportionately impacted.

They are women like Habibo Mohamed, 36, who just recently gave birth to twins. All the while, without access to health services, water or food.

Before the drought, Habibo, a mother of eight, lived in the Bakool region in southwestern Somalia. She was a pastoralist and owned four camels and more than 90 goats. She sold livestock products like milk and butter, and livestock was her primary source of income.

Somalia’s prolonged drought, the worst in Habibo’s lifetime, killed many of her animals. It has destroyed her livelihood and forced her to make decisions that no pregnant woman should have to make.

In the last stages of her pregnancy, Habibo travelled for 11 days from her home in the Bakool region to Baidoa, further south in the country, seeking better conditions. With her children, Habibo left behind her village and husband, who stayed to look after the remaining livestock. She felt extreme, constant pain and discomfort while using a donkey cart to transport her children.

“Four days after arriving in Baidoa, my labour pains started,” Habibo says. “I knew I would deliver in a difficult situation. There was no health centre in the camp; I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I remained in my tent in despair, and around midnight, I gave birth to twin boys with the assistance of a traditional midwife.”

Habibo’s story is like many other newly displaced women in Somalia. Drought not only stripped away their livelihood but also their ability to access critical health services.

I never expected to give birth during a crisis like this,” Habibo says. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday. I was getting weaker, and I had no milk left to breastfeed my twin babies. So, I have put some sugary water into this bottle so that I can feed them. I am not thinking about myself. I am thinking about my twin babies. They are my biggest worry now.”

Globally, during emergencies and disasters, women and girls are the most affected due to pre-existing inequality and harmful gendered norms.

In Somalia, women and girls make up the majority within displaced communities. Single mothers, unaccompanied young girls, and people from vulnerable backgrounds, including people with disabilities and marginalised identities, are living in makeshift housing in informal settlements.

While women and girls struggle to cope with shortages in food and water, they are also experiencing the unique gendered dynamics that require tailored attention and response.

The inter-generational experience of drought displacement

Fatima Dahir Ahmed, 17, lives in a displacement camp in Garowe, in north-eastern Somalia. This is not the first time that Fatima has experienced displacement.

She lived through the previous droughts in 2011 and 2017, but now the experience is much more complicated. Now, she is a young mother.

When the drought worsened in 2022, her family’s livelihood was destroyed and her husband left. Suddenly she was a single mother and the sole carer of her five-year-old and a six-month-old baby.

“When I realised my husband was not returning, it was time to go because I could not provide for my children,” Fatima says.

Like many of the women who have come before her, Fatima was forced to take a long, risky journey from her rural community to an urban city.

Fatima and her children came to a camp on the outskirts of Garwoe, where Fatima’s mother has been living since 2017. Fatima now lives in the kitchen of a makeshift shelter, struggling to find a way to provide for her children. She regularly goes into the city to look for work, and brings back roughly USD 2 per day, which is not enough.

“Most of the week, I do not know when our next meal or drink of water will be, or what will come,” Fatima says.

“I am an old person… this is the worst drought I have ever witnessed.”

Drought also places a heavy burden on older women. Sangabo Hassan Mohamed, 58, was a successful farmer growing sorghum, maize, and cowpeas. She had more than 175 goats.

“When the drought came, there was no rain, no pasture for livestock. All of my goats died in front of my eyes, one by one,” Sangabo recounts. “I am an old person, I have lived through many droughts in Somalia, but this is the worst drought I have ever witnessed. I have never seen such a devastating drought like this.” 

Sangabo was forced to make the hard decision to leave her village in the Bakool region with her three grandchildren, leaving behind her daughter who could not manage the long journey. It took eight days to arrive at Qaydar-adde camp in Baidoa. During the journey, the family slept on the roadside, but Sangabo stayed awake and alert in order to protect her grandchildren.

“We were walking for eight days, and during the long walk across dusty land with high temperatures, we had no food or water at all. It was a horrific journey,” Sangabo says. “We mainly walked during daylight. A thirsty and hungry person cannot walk much, but we walked as much as we could.”

It was not only Sangabo’s daughter who was left behind, but also older people and disabled people who could not walk such a long distance.

For Sangabo, being an older woman has made coping with the conditions of displacement much tougher. At the same time, she is most concerned with looking after her grandchildren and preventing them from becoming ill.

Living in constant fear

In Somalia, displaced women and girls are caught up in a double crisis, suffering from a shortage of water and food, but also from violence and threats to their safety.

Some groups of vulnerable women have set up informal settlements in the middle of dry lands, with extreme winds, no toilets or electricity.

Women here must choose between either drinking contaminated water from a nearby reserve or taking the risky journey to find clean water. This has created an unsafe, fearful environment for vulnerable women and girls who are already struggling to survive the drought crisis.

In places like Somalia, where women and girls are the most affected by disasters, and make up majority of those forced into displacement, it is important that humanitarian response is tailored to their unique needs and experiences.

We must better support and protect women and girls like Habibo, Fatma and Sangabo. 

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