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Social Issues
Lovers In A Dangerous Time: Inside Somalia’s Secret Marriages
April 20, 2013
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Somalia has long had a reputation as one of the most dangerous, lawless and fragile countries on the planet.

A place that, over the past 30 years, has been mired in a civil war with no effective central government in control.

Fighting between rival warlords, along with famine, drought and disease have killed up to one million people.

In recent years, Islamic militants, led by the Al-Shabab group, took control of much of the country - imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law.

But last fall, the militants were driven out of most major cities and towns by the Somali army (which had been trained by the Ugandan military).

The country's first formal parliament in more than 20 years was sworn in at Mogadishu airport, with a new President and Prime Minister and a more tolerant form of Islam.

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Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (right)

That has slowly led to some changes, including one that is allowing young Somalis to get married on their own terms.

Under Al-Shabab, eloping was illegal and punishable by whipping or even death by stoning.

Many young people were forced into arranged marriages, or had to date someone in secret for fear of family retribution.

One of those couples is profiled in a story by the Associated Press.

Abdi Ali, 25, and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Anisa, have hid their relationship for two years - making secret phone calls, meeting in secret places, and walking on different streets.

Anisa's parents wouldn't allow her to marry Abdi; they wanted her to marry a cousin in the United States.

"They tried to turn down my choice, and I had to do the same against their will," Anisa told AP.

"You can't be engaged with just a stranger you have been forced to marry. We are living a civilized world."

Now, with the Islamic militants out and the extreme laws no longer in place, Anisa and Ali recently got married - eloping to a town about 90 kilometres outside Mogadishu.

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Abdi Ali & Anisa sit with an Islamic cleric who marries eloping couples

The town, Walaweyn, is sort of like the Las Vegas of Somalia.

As AP writes, "there are several eloping rooms, including some in buildings that once housed al-Shabab extremists. Guides welcome new arrivals to the town, asking them if they want to elope."

"Already this year we married hundreds of people, unlike last year when you could barely receive ten or fewer a month," said Sheikh Mohamed Salad, an Islamic cleric who marries eloping couples.

The ceremony lasts about 20 minutes and costs $20. Each couple gets a marriage certificate, so they won't be accused of adultery and any children they have will be considered legitimate.

After Ali and Anisa were married, Ali told AP "Our dream has just come true. We are finally married now."

They plan to keep their marriage a secret for now, and eventually (and very tactfully) tell their families - hoping both sides will accept it.

In the meantime, as AP writes, they "board a minivan heading back to Mogadishu, sitting separately, as if they don't know each other."

In spite of this kind of change, Somalia still has a long way to go to improve human rights and freedoms.

The UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says, "the continuing instability in parts of Somalia and access restrictions for humanitarian workers remain major obstacles for aid delivery."

And as The Guardian notes, "many NGOs compromise their neutrality and accept military support to get things done. Some negotiate with al-Shabaab, which banned aid agencies in 2011. Despite being on the back foot, al-Shabaab has retaken two towns since March."

Rape is also a big problem and according to Human Rights Watch, many are carried out by men in uniform.

And this past Sunday, at least 35 people, including two human rights lawyers, were killed in an attack by Islamist militants - the deadliest in Mogadishu in years.

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Somali soldiers after a car bombing near Mogadishu's court complex last Sunday

To try to overcome those challenges, the new Somali government has signed on to a new aid deal for fragile countries - which is designed to build peace, justice and human security.

It was put forward by a group of 18 conflict-affected countries, known as the g7+. Of those countries, 13 are in Africa.

In all, 1.5 billion people around the world live in fragile states, the majority of which are in Africa.

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