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Gender equality classes help Somali teenage girls stay in school

By Mike Pflanz

BURTINLE, Somalia, 28 March 2011 – At first, the class of teenagers is a little shy when asked whether menstruation or early marriage is the more common reason why girls drop out of school.

VIDEO: 2 March 2011: UNICEF's Denise Shepherd-Johnson reports on a programme that is helping Somali girls cope with gender discrimination and stay in school during their teenage years.  Watch in RealPlayer


But soon the debate begins. It ends with all 19 girls in the class saying early marriage. The 13 boys, on the other hand, choose menstruation.

That a discussion about such sensitive subjects in a room full of adolescents is happening with little giggling, teasing or embarrassment is surprising.

But it is all the more striking here in Somalia, where both culture and curriculum have traditionally shied away from talking to children about the changes they face as they grow up.

This class, at Burtinle Secondary School in semi-autonomous Puntland in north-eastern Somalia, is part of an innovative scheme giving teenagers across the country accurate and practical advice. About 12,000 girls are involved.

Reducing drop-out rates

The Management of Maturation Project, as it is known, is designed to increase enrolment and reduce the number of children, especially girls, who drop out of school.

© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Pflanz
A teenager sews sanitary kits for school girls, as part of a UNICEF-supported programme to empower girls to complete their education in Somalia.

It is a partnership between UNICEF and the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD), and is funded by UKaid. As part of the project, girls are given sanitary kits consisting of sanitary pads, underwear and soap for use during their periods.

Classes also cover the physiological changes in puberty. Boys and girls are encouraged to discuss how education can help them and their families, and to argue the value of staying in school.

On the blackboard at Burtinle Secondary School, the teacher has chalked up five headings: menstruation, early marriage, housework, poverty, and misunderstanding education.

There are differing views on the impact of each on a girl’s education, particularly menstruation. “Housework is something girls get help with,” says Dayip Mohamed, 17, “menstruation is their private problem.”

His classmate, Rage Abdulqadir, 18, agrees: “Periods affect rich and poor girls.”

Gender misconceptions

Hodon, 17, says they are wrong to think menstruation doesn’t affect a girl’s right to an education.

© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Pflanz
Girls at Harfo Boarding School in Somalia receive sanitary kits. It's part of a UNICEF-supported programme to keep girls in school throughout their teenage years.

“Before I learnt that menstruation is a natural thing, that every girl in the world has this, I used to be absent from school for all four days of my period, sometimes seven days,” she says.

For Somali girls, it is not just embarrassment and potential teasing about stained clothes during their periods that causes them not to attend school. There are also parental perceptions to contend with.

A son’s education is seen as important in Somalia. The thinking is if a boy receives a good education, he will find salaried work and be able to look after his parents into their old age.

A daughter, by contrast, is seen first as domestic help, then as dowry. “Even before she is married, she is needed around her parents’ home, cleaning the compound, the dishes, looking after younger siblings,” says GECPD Director Hawa Aden Mohamed.

“So when she begins to menstruate, remember it was already a debate in her mother’s mind whether she should let the girl be in school anyway.”

Ms. Mohamed goes on: “Then she comes home with a period and her mother thinks, ‘this is not a girl, she is a woman, she should be looking for a husband not spending time with school children’.”

A new future for girls

Chipping away at these traditions has been difficult for everyone involved in the programme.

“They said girls are only for housework,” says Hawa Abdisamet, a member of the parent-teacher association at a GECPD-supported girls-only school in the town of Galkayo.

“But we said, why can’t they learn how to add up numbers so they can sell things in the market better, or know how to measure material for sewing, and write bills for customers?”

Showing examples of success is finally breaking down the cultural suspicion of girls’ education, says Sheikh Abdinasir Abdalla Jama, an Islamic scholar and religious leader who also sits on GECPD’s community education committee.

“Showing these tangible results is the best way to change people’s minds,” he says. “They’re earning income not only for their husband’s families, but for their parents as well.”



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