Success of Somali schoolgirls helps overcome cultural barriers to girls’ education
By Mike Pflanz
HARFO, Somalia, 16 March 2011 – When Layla Aden was 13 years old, her grandmother took her aside to tell her that she would soon be married and that she would no longer have to go to school.
“I was so shocked, I had no choice, the decision had been made for me to marry a very old man,” she said.
“I wanted to stay at school, I cried so much, I managed to escape from my grandmother’s house and I went to ask my uncle for help.
“He persuaded my grandmother eventually that the choice of who I marry and when I leave school should be my own. I am lucky. Many girls my age are married and have stopped school.”
Layla, now 18 and a pupil at Harfo Primary School in northeastern Somalia, is one of an increasing number of young girls here who are for the first time being allowed to stay in school well into their late teens.
The school in Harfo is run by Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development or GECPD, a local NGO. Hawa Aden, the director of GECPD, says that traditionally, even allowing girls an education in the first place would have been rare.
“Things are changing, even if it is very slowly. The barriers are many. There are cultural beliefs that don’t value girls’ education, there is the misconception that Islam does not think sending girls to school is important, and there is poverty.” Mrs Aden said.
But one by one, GECPD and its partners are working to change those traditional perceptions.
Sceptical parents and religious leaders have been engaged in ongoing debate to try to answer their concerns, in the hope of turning them into community ambassadors for girls’ education.
Discussions have been held to illustrate religious doctrine which encourages education for all. Schools have been renovated and free education, with free uniforms, materials and school-meals, has been introduced to reach out to the daughters of Somalia’s poorest families.
There are also efforts aimed at increasing the retention of adolescent girls in school as well as improving their performance through the Management of Maturation Project, supported by UNICEF and funded by the UKaid from the Department for International Development.
At Harfo, a residential wing was constructed to allow up to 160 girls to board at the school.
“Their parents are mostly nomadic livestock herders, but now even when they are away with the animals, they can have confidence that their daughters are safe,” said Bashir Salad Farah, the head teacher.
Slowly, the tide is turning. Layla, who was to be married at age 13, is now proudly preparing for the school exams in preparation for joining secondary school.
In Galkayo town, 45 minutes drive south of Harfo, Mana Abdi, 15, is climbing up the rankings in her class, after her parents allowed her to go to school only after they realised the education was free.
“At first my parents said it would be too hard on the family if the money I used to earn in the market stopped because I was in school,” she said.
“But then I talked to them about other girls who went to school and now had good jobs, earning their families better money. Finally they agreed.”
Showing these successes is crucial, says Hawa Yusuf, education coordinator at GECPD, where pupils were practicing drama plays to perform at school open days to show how education can help.
“All of this is part of raising awareness, of showing these children as role models and encouraging more and more to follow them,” she said.
Later that afternoon, a short walk from GECPD school, 17-year-old Saido Abdisalan was hanging clothes to dry in the dirt-floor yard of the home where she lives with her mother and five brothers and sisters.
In the morning, she goes to school. In the afternoon, she helps with housework. Both, her mother Hawa Abdullahi says, are her “jobs”.
“At first I thought she must be at home to help me all day,” said Mrs Abdullahi, who scrapes a living as a butcher in a nearby market.
“But now I see she can do both jobs very well, and by learning in school, she can become a prominent figure, someone who can have a better job than mine.”
Read about the Management of Maturation Project implemented by GECPD:
Feature Story: Hawa Aden Mohamed, Director of GECPD
Feature Story: 16-year-old Kafiya tells her story