The woman who defeated three men to win re-election to parliament
Three women candidates were elected to the House of the People on the first day of voting in Jubbaland state for the lower chamber of the federal parliament. Two of them ran for seats reserved exclusively for women that morning, but Hamza Sheikh Hassan Olow found herself competing for votes against three male rivals.
The 49-year-old incumbent member of the federal parliament defeated the men handily, garnering 36 of the 50 votes cast by Electoral College delegates for her seat.
“They were wealthy men with resources which I didn’t have, and they were supported by other men and some people from the diaspora,” says Hamza. “(But) I have given it my all, I always consulted my elders and I’m always willing to listen to my people.”
The outbreak of Somalia’s civil war in 1991 motivated Hamza to become a civil society activist at a time when few Somali women ventured into politics. She worked with several civil society organisations, including the Centre for Research and Dialogue and the Somali Women’s Development Centre, before seeking election to parliament.
“The reason I joined politics was because I was tired of looking on as my country descended into chaos,” the single mother of eight explains. “The effects of any war will affect the women directly. Our children, our husbands die from it.”
The impact of armed conflict on Somali women motivated Hamza to seek a greater voice for her gender in the country’s political affairs.
“I come from a vulnerable community living along the banks of River Jubba in the Lower Jubba region,” noted the member of parliament-elect, who belongs to the Cowl-Yahan clan. “When I first started working as an activist, my aim was to empower women affected by war, poverty and disease.”
Unlike many Somalis of her generation, Hamza chose to remain in the country throughout the long years of chaos and civil war instead of opting for a safer life in a foreign country.
“I have never lived outside of Somalia,” she says. “I stayed here even at the height of the civil war and bore the brunt of the violence. That motivated me to stand up against social ills and improve the lives of the people in my community.”
Throughout her life, Hamza has campaigned against the practice of female genital mutilation, which is performed on nearly all girls in her native Lower Jubba region. She views her activism as a tool for seeking greater protection for the most vulnerable segments of Somali society.
“Being in politics gave me a stronger voice and platform to create change,” she says. “I have helped the most vulnerable in society, the ailing in my community.”
She partly attributes her success to the support she received from the elders of her clan, who she says were willing to listen to her.
Hamza also acknowledges the role played by Jubbaland state authorities in supporting the 30 per cent parliamentary quota for women, at least in the case of seats in the House of the People. Of the initial 17 women who were elected to the lower chamber nationwide through 18 November, nine of them competed for seats in Jubbaland.
Hamza pledges to use her next four-year term in parliament to achieve lasting change.
“Somalia has suffered a lot of destruction over the years,” says the MP-elect. “I want to participate in its restoration. We need to help youth find jobs and encourage more women to participate in politics.”
Her victory over three male candidates in this year’s electoral process may well inspire other Somali women to follow Hamza’s example when the country holds its next federal election in 2020.