By Emma Batha
LONDON (TrustLaw) - A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll may have found that Afghanistan is the most dangerous place to be a woman, but Somalia's women's minister is astonished any country could be worse than her own.
"I'm completely surprised because I thought Somalia would be first on the list, not fifth," said Maryan Qasim.
The lawless country has been engulfed in conflict for 20 years. But the greatest risk to women's lives is not war but birth. One woman dies for every 100 live births, according to U.N. figures -- one of the highest rates in the world.
"The most dangerous thing a woman in Somalia can do is to become pregnant," Qasim said. "When a woman becomes pregnant her life is 50-50 because there is no antenatal care at all ... There are no hospitals, no healthcare, no nothing."
The poll by TrustLaw (www.trust.org/trustlaw), a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation, marked the launch of its new TrustLaw Women section, a global hub of news and information on women's legal rights.
TrustLaw asked more than 200 gender experts to pick the world's most dangerous countries for women. Somalia trailed behind Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan and India. But Qasim described Somalia as a "living hell" for women struggling to feed their children amid war and drought.
The constant risk of getting shot or raped, the lack of education and healthcare and practices like female genital mutilation make women's lives unbelievably hard, she said. "If I was asked where is the most dangerous place to be a woman I would have said with certainty Somalia," she told the Foundation during a trip to London.
Qasim, who has spent two decades in exile, said she was shocked by the destitution she saw when she returned to Somalia's capital Mogadishu last year after being asked to become minister for women's development and family welfare.
Many women have lost their husbands in the fighting, meaning they not only have to raise their children on their own but also scrape together an income to feed the family.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Its U.N.-backed transitional government is embroiled in war with Islamist rebels who want to impose their own harsh version of sharia law on the nation.
Around 1.4 million people, mostly women and children, are displaced within Somalia after being forced to flee their homes. Rape is a risk for many.
"Rape was used in the beginning as a weapon of war, but now women who are from a minority or who have been displaced can be raped at any minute. I've seen a case of rape as young as five years old," Qasim added.
Women's health is also seriously compromised by the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), said the minister who worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Somalia until 1991. The practice, which is carried out on almost all girls aged four to 10, is aimed at ensuring girls remain virgins until marriage. But it can cause difficulties in labour and is a factor behind the high rates of death in childbirth.
Qasim said people used to be punished for carrying out FGM but now there are no laws and the practice has returned. Some 95 percent of women in Somalia have undergone FGM, according to U.N. figures.
The minister said she had come across cases of men divorcing new wives if they had not undergone FGM so mothers continue the custom to protect their daughters. Qasim, who was working as a teacher in Britain when she was invited to join Somalia's government last year, stressed that one of the greatest needs for women was education.
"If women are not educated, I think definitely we cannot build a society. I've met so many young girls and women in Mogadishu -- you cannot imagine their appetite for education but they do not have that opportunity."
The lack of rule of law, which lets people kill and rape with impunity, and misinterpretation of Islam both compound women's oppression, the minister said.
"After the collapse of the Somali state so many groups and terrorists from all over the world came to Somalia and interpreted Islam as they liked -- women cannot go outside, they cannot wear bras ... They do whatever they want and they say this is Islam, but it has nothing to do with Islam."
Both men and women need to be educated more about Islam and women's rights, she said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)