How to work with traditional leaders to set the political agenda

Written by Mohamed Abdullahi Guleid, Executive Director, the Somaliland Youth Development and Voluntary Organisation (SOYDAVO)

Please describe a real-life problem your organisation has faced

In Somaliland, harmful traditional practices and beliefs that lead to violence against women and girls are still practiced. This includes female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriages. Most of this violence is deeply rooted in the Somaliland culture. Challenging these practices is like challenging people’s beliefs and culture. It is therefore very important to understand how communities are organised. In Somaliland, there are tribes and clans and each of them is headed by a clan elder or a clan chief locally known as ‘Aqil’. Aqils are powerful and influential leaders whose words and actions are well respected among the communities.

How did you work on and try to overcome this problem?

Considering the role of traditional leaders in the community, we identified the key traditional leaders in each village and trained them on FGM and gender-based violence (GBV) by using tailor-made training notes from the holy Quran and teachings of Prophet Mohamed PBUH. This has helped us to convince and get the confidence and trust of the community leaders. The traditional leaders were also the key active actors during the consultation meetings on anti-FGM and rape laws at both national and regional level. The anti-rape law was finally signed and approved by the president. The engagement with clan elders does not end at consultation meetings – we ensure that project teams regularly consult with them on activities and any new projects.

What did you achieve and what changes were made?

Using this approach of working with traditional leaders in the implementations of the GBV projects has been effective. People have started to realise that GBV and FGM have no place in our culture, nor in Islam. Working with traditional and village leaders has also helped us to get support and acceptance within the communities.

What did you learn from this experience?

In the beginning this has been a very tough decision and hard work. For instance, discussing the issues of gender, FGM and GBV with rural communities that have never gone to school is tough and challenging. There have been days when we have been kicked out of the village by community elders and members. Though we were disappointed, we decided not to let the will of few be an obstacle for the betterment of the victims of GBV/FGM. We have also learnt to stay strong in your beliefs that you can bring change to communities, even if it feels like the whole world is against you. With this mindset, challenging most of the influential leaders in the communities we have worked with has been an easier job for SOYDAVO.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or a similar issue to the one you describe above?

The implementation of GBV projects in Africa and elsewhere in the world is challenging. The reason is that the activities are designed to bring attitudinal change. Therefore, here are my tips for any organisation implementing or planning to implement GBV projects:

  • Understand and study the characteristics of the communities you are working with. By closely studying the community’s history regarding the issues you are addressing, you will get a better understanding of how to bring about change
  • Every community in the world is organised in a certain way and there are people who usually influence community decisions on certain issues. It is always advised to understand this structure, and identify and engage with those powerful people when designing and implementing GBV projects.
  • Always consult community leaders and try to work hard to build trust and mutual understanding.

Mohamed Abdullahi Guleid, Executive Director, the Somaliland Youth Development and Voluntary Organisation (SOYDAVO)

After having successfully managed one of SOYDAVO’s biggest gender-based violence projects, Mohamed Guleid has been promoted as the organisation’s Executive Director in 2016.

During his time as a project manager, Mohamed has developed strong skills and experience on how to work with traditional leaders. Mohamed Guleid is an alumnus of prestigious training of National NGO Program on humanitarian Leadership (NNPHL) and Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), and a member of Somaliland’s NGO Consortium advisory Board.

SOYDAVO website