300 Somalis have signed up to a weekly exercise and mindfulness class to lessen the trauma many have endured during decades of conflict
By Neha Wadekar
MOGADISHU, Jan 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Somali teenager Ibshira glances back to make sure she is not being followed as she cuts across Mogadishu, passing rubble from bombed buildings and soldiers armed with automatic weapons.
Once safely inside a spacious community hall, its air conditioning rumbling away, the 19-year-old sets aside her fears to focus on her breath and movement, along with about 20 other young women dressed in light blue tracksuits and black headscarves.
Like Ibshira, they are among some 300 Somalis who have signed up to a weekly exercise and mindfulness class, a unique form of therapy that aims to lessen the trauma many have endured during decades of conflict in the Horn of Africa.
"When I come here, I don't have any worries or problems," said Ibshira, who declined to give her last name.
"I forget all of them," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ibshira started coming to the weekly classes after two older students attempted to rape her for refusing to date one of them.
She dropped out of school as a precaution but they still wait outside her house and follow her in the streets, trying to "catch" her, she said, her eyes focused intensely on the floor.
The class also draws Somalis struggling to overcome sexual violence, recruitment as child soldiers and the deaths of family members in suicide bombings.
Others come as a way of coping with rape, child marriage and domestic abuse - issues that are pervasive but often go unpunished in Somalia, where war has fuelled a culture of violence and weakened institutions meant to uphold the law.
A sexual offences bill has been drafted but is yet to be signed into law.
A lack of justice leaves many survivors seeking other ways to address what has happened to them.
When 18-year-old Hanan asked her family's permission to marry her boyfriend, her parents tried to force her to marry a cousin and stopped her going to school or leaving the house.
"They said: 'If you go out, we will kill you'," she said, wiping sweat off her black hijab after her practice.
After weeks of isolation, a friend intervened and persuaded Hanan's family to let her to return to school and attend the classes.
"I felt relief," said Hanan, who declined to give her real name for fear of reprisals. "The programme helps me to heal."
The sessions are led by 12 Somali instructors, trained by the Nairobi-based Africa Yoga Project (AYP), a charity providing free classes to poor communities in neighbouring Kenya.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) initially asked AYP to help its staff, who were suffering high rates of burnout due to the stress of their jobs.
"People felt so good after class," AYP's founder Paige Elenson said, comfortably balanced in a cross-legged position.
The aid workers decided to offer the classes to help reduce anxiety among traumatised young people with whom they worked.
"When you take the history of the survivor, you feel like the person is (trapped) in a box and doesn't feel able to speak about violence like rape," said Ismahan Nur Shikh Ahmed, one of the Somali instructors who also counsels survivors of sexual violence for CISP, an Italian charity.
"For mental stabilisation, we ask them if they need to join the mind and body well-being programme."
The biggest challenge the initiative faces is from Islamist militants, such as al Shabaab, who view the spiritual practice that originated in India as counter to Islamic teachings.
African Union peacekeepers have been battling to defend Somalia's weak Western-backed government against al Shabaab for nearly a decade.
"We took the type of yoga that I practice ... and said: 'What can we learn from this to be able to adapt to a Somali context?'" Elenson said.
The names of some poses were changed - downward facing dog became downward facing V - because many Muslims regard dogs as impure.
Movements where the women spread their legs were eliminated to make them feel less vulnerable and to respect Somalia's conservative society.
Ibshira says the classes have helped her to realise her strength as a woman, something that Somali culture traditionally downplays.
Her favourite posture is the warrior pose, she said.
"It builds your muscles," she said with a smile, flexing her biceps.
(Editing by Katy Migiro and Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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