Hawa Aden Mohamed: a woman of courage
By Denise Shepherd-Johnson and Woki Munyui
GALKAYO, Somalia, 7 March 2011 - For over 20 years Hawa Aden Mohamed, educationalist, peace activist and human rights campaigner, has worked to improve the lives of Somali women and girls. She is one of the founders of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD) which has been instrumental in increasing girls’ enrolment in the Mudug region of Puntland (northeast Somalia) and ensuring that at 40% the region has the highest girls’ enrolment throughout Somalia. This, in a country where only 24.6% of Somali girls attend school.
Funded by UKaid from the Department for International Development, UNICEF is partnering with the GECPD to support 3,220 girls as they reach puberty. In total, the maturation project will benefit 12,000 primary school girls, women in vulnerable communities and help to mainstream gender in Puntland’s educational policies.
Born over 60 years ago in Baidoa, central Somalia, Hawa says she was raised to resist predominant cultural and traditional practices like early marriage, which discriminate against Somali girls
“My father believed in education for both boys and girls. My five bothers and four sisters all went to school. My father was challenged by others for educating his daughters, but he defied them and told them to leave his girls alone.”
Hawa recounts that her father also opposed female circumcision.
“Before I was born, my elder sister had died at age nine from tetanus as a result of FGM. If my father had had support we wouldn’t have been cut but it was my stepmother’s responsibility and she didn’t know any better. I suffered. I only learnt my sister had died after I was cut. In those days no-one spoke out. Human rights issues were not discussed but the health issues were always there”.
These experiences helped to shape Hawa who went on to study in India and train as a teacher the UK, eventually becoming the Director of Non-Formal Education (with a special focus on women) in the Mogadishu Ministry of Education.
Though she left the Ministry in 1986 to run a successful clothes manufacturing business with her sister, she was lured back to the field of education upon her return to Somalia after three years in Canada (following the fall of the Siad Barre government) where she worked with immigrants on women’s health issues. Hawa and her sister then started a successful girls’ school in Kismayo for formal and non-formal education and income generation.
When Kismayo fell into the hands of militia in June 1999, the school had to close and Hawa fled to Nairobi. From there she was invited to Toronto by the Somali community which suggested that she should resume her work in education in Galkayo (from where her grandfather originated). She said she would go if they could help to provide financial support, so they raised US$13,000 to help her start the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development, which initially offered 120 girls a free education. Removing the burden of school fees was a breakthrough. Schools in Somalia usually charge between USD $3 and USD $10 per child per month, a sum way beyond the reach of most parents who have to support an average of 6 children with meagre resources.
Starting the school was not without its challenges. Authorities and leaders opposed her education programmes which not only focused on girls’ education but also on women’s empowerment. Men were suspicious that she was encouraging women to desert them and her advocacy against FGM and early marriage earned her the wrath of local communities. Says, Hawa, “[The school] was criticized for being too westernized and the building was stoned. Faeces were thrown at it. There were nights when we couldn’t sleep. People barricaded us in and continued to throw stones and send threats”.
However, as the Centre’s reputation grew, more parents sought admission for their daughters. The high demand for places forced the GECPD Executive Board to set a rule for admission: one girl per family. The rule still applies even though the Centre has now expanded to 8 additional satellite schools. Today, over 3,300 girls are receiving a free education at the GECPD schools: 1,150 are in formal education and 2,070 girls are in second chance non-formal education (including literacy, numeracy and life-skills education). The children also receive school uniforms, books and a hot meal through the WFP feeding programme.
Hawa’s FGM abandonment programme is now renowned in Galkayo and communities there acknowledge her enormous contribution to girls’ education and women’s economic and social empowerment. Several women from IDP communities now have the skills to run a bakery and are selling their products in the market while their daughters study at the Centre’s schools.
According to Hawa, the schools’ greatest challenge is in maintaining and paying teachers at least $100 per month. Running a nearby guesthouse helps to provide an income to pay the teachers but the Centre’s financial needs are many. This is because in addition to promoting girls’ education Hawa has also started an education programme for approximately 250 boys so that they too understand and respect gender equity.
Hawa believes girls’ education is the only tool to change “bad culture.” She says she is driven by the advances made in her lifetime, “As much as I recognise that parents do not have means to send their children to school, I read injustice underneath, as families send boys to school and leave girls at home. When I see that girls’ education is not valued, I ask, how can they be empowered? If you remain illiterate and your only source of information is what your friends and family tell you, you can’t question things. In Somalia [FGM] is considered ‘a women’s issue’ but women alone cannot fight for its elimination. It will take time. There are still places where they haven’t even heard that it is not right. Maybe one day there will be no FGM and one day we will get government support”.
Hawa Aden Mohamed, a woman of courage: making a difference for Somali girls and their families.