The weak presence of the government in some regions of Somaliland and reliance on traditional customs are factors preventing women from reporting violence against them, local Somaliland officials say.
Abdi Abdullahi Hassan, director of social affairs in the Somaliland Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said there were about 4,000 reported cases of violence against women in Somaliland in 2011, including rape and attempted rape.
Rape cases occurred more often in the eastern region, particularly in Sanaag, where almost half of the reported rape cases took place, he said.
"Organisations and the government have strong influence in the western region and the communities are very sensitised about sexual- and gender-based violence relating to women, as opposed to the eastern region, particularly Sanaag, where the influence of the government and organisations is weak, even though non-governmental organisations work there," Hassan told Sabahi.
Rape carries a lot of stigma among Somalis and victims often do not have the courage to report the crime, Hassan said. He said traditional practices are the greatest challenge in resolving these issues.
"In accordance with Somali traditions, it is difficult for the girl to immediately report the rape if she does not have severe injuries," Hassan said. "Rape cases are recurrent, but the numbers we are reporting or were reported to the Sexual Assaults Referral Centre (SARC) or the police are limited."
"In some cases, the family of the rapist and that of the girl who was raped may come together and agree to settle the matter according to Somali traditions, where some of the victims may be forced to marry their rapists," Hassan said.
SARC is run by the government and treats victims of rape and other gender-based violence who have sustained physical or psychological injuries. Hassan said his department is working to open SARC branches in other regions in Somaliland.
Dr. Ahmed Dahir Aden, director of SARC at Hargeisa's General Hospital, says his centre often sees women before they go to the police.
Aden said some rape victims sustain severe injuries that require medical attention. After a medical examination, rape victims can voluntarily take their cases to the police to be further investigated and brought to court.
"Victims should be treated and rapists should be legally punished," he told Sabahi.
Aden said traditional ways of solving rape cases are obstacles to the legal methods of punishing rapists. If convicted in court, rapists can be charged with two separate counts -- one for the crime committed against the victim and another for the crime committed against the state, Aden said.
"People think our traditions have solutions for everything. It often happens that traditional elders intervene and withdraw a case already in court and proceed to solve the matter traditionally," he said.
Aden said incidents of rape mostly go un-reported, leading to problems such as unwanted pregnancies and diseases such as HIV/AIDS. "Rape cases are on the rise in Somaliland year after year. For example, in our office, we recorded 105 rape cases [in 2010] and the number [in 2011] has increased to 145."
Delay in reporting rape, which leads to the loss of physical evidence, also hinders prosecution.
"It is my advice to people to report rape cases quickly so that the evidence is not lost and justice can be served," Aden said.
Aden said rape cases that come through SARC are usually resolved in one of three ways: some women only want medical treatment and refuse to seek legal or traditional restitution, others seek traditional ways to resolve their cases, and the last group of victims use the court system to resolve their cases.
He said SARC receives support from the United Nations Development Programme and works in partnership with various ministries as well as international and community-based organisations.
Judge Said Yusuf Abdi told Sabahi he hears a lot of rape cases in his court. "Most of the victims are unmarried women and their cases make up 30% of all cases that come to us," he said. "When these rape cases come to our courts, we usually jail those found guilty for five to 10 years."
"We also rule for the victim and damages she suffered as a result of the rape, such as injuries and the loss of self-esteem. These can amount up to 50 camels, according to Islamic law," Abdi said. "I do not allow the two sides in the case to solve the damages on their own, in order to safeguard the interest of the victim."
Zeinab Haji Mohammed, who heads Gaashaan, an organisation that advocates for the rights of rape victims, said a majority of rape victims are people in refugee camps.
"Rape incidents continue to occur, so we need a lasting solution to the problem," she told Sabahi.
Mohammed said there should be stiffer penalties for convicted rapists and the community should work with religious teachings and the courts to address gender-based violence. "[Both] Islamic laws and a strong judiciary should be used to hand down severe sentences and punish perpetrators," she said.