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“Facts of life” classes help Somalia’s teenage girls stay in school

UNICEF Somalia, Pflanz
© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Pflanz
Hodon Abduwali stands at the blackboard in Burtinle Secondary School and leads a class discussion on issues which could lead to children - especially girls - dropping out of school.

By Mike Pflanz

BURTINLE, Somalia, 7 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. 

But soon the talk is flowing. The girls, 19 of them, all say early marriage. The 13 boys, unanimously, say menstruation.

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

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

This class, at Burtinle Secondary School in Northeast Somalia “Puntland”, is part of an innovative scheme in Somalia giving teenagers accurate and practical advice during adolescence.

The Management of Maturation Project is designed to increase school enrolment and reduce the number of children – especially girls – who drop out before completing their education. The project is implemented through partnership between UNICEF and the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD), funded by UKaid from the Department for International Development under the “Strategic Partnership” for Education in Somalia.

As feminine pads are not easily available, girls are given sanitary kits consisting of specially-made sanitary pads, underpants and soap to use during their periods. Classes are taught about physiological changes in puberty.

Boys and girls are encouraged to discuss how education can help them and their families in the future, and to be able to argue the value of staying in school.

On the blackboard in the Burtinle Secondary School class, Hodon Abduwali has chalked five headings: Menstruation, Early Marriage, Housework, Poverty, Misunderstanding Education.

The girls in her class vote that early marriage and their families’ need for them to work at home are the two most likely factors which will push a girl out of school permanently. The boys say menstruation.

“Housework is something girls get help with, menstruation is their private problem,” Dayip Mohamed, 17, offers as his reasoning. “Periods affect rich and poor girls,” seconds his classmate, Rage Abdulqadir, 18. 

“They are wrong,” says Hodon, 17. “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.

“But now we have all of this support, I come every day, even if I have my period. It is no reason to leave school.”

UNICEF Somalia, Pflanz
© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Pflanz
A teenage girl sews sanitary kits for school girls, as part of a project designed to empower girls and give them the incentive to complete schooling.

For Somalia’s girls, it is not just the embarrassment and potential teasing from stained clothes during their periods that will cause them to stay away from school, first for a few days, maybe later permanently.

Traditionally, sons are sent to school. This is largely because if their education wins them good jobs, their parents know they will be well looked after in their old age.

A daughter, by contrast, marries into another family who will see the fruits of her education. To her parents, her worth is 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,” said Hawa Aaden, Director of GECPD.

“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.

“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’.”

Chipping away at these cultural lodestones has been difficult for everyone involved in the Management of Maturation Project, which started in Somalia in 2006.

“People called us names, they said we had some hidden agenda bringing only girls to class,” said Hawa Abdisamet, a member of the parent-teacher association at GECPD school, a girls-only school in Galkayo town. 

“They said girls are only for housework, 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 eventually broke 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.

The school’s graduates went on to secondary school or college, and now have jobs paying salaries.

“Showing these tangible results is the best way to change people’s minds, they’re earning income for their husband’s families but for their parents as well,” said Sheikh Abdinasir. 

Ayan Abdinasir Mohamed is one such example. A graduate of Mrs Aaden’s GECPD school, the 22-year-old now teaches Somali language and Science at Burtinle.

“Anyone who still thinks that girls should not go to school, or should leave school when they begin menstruating, I want to tell those people that educated children will get better jobs and help them more,” she said.

“Look at me. I am the first woman in my family ever to earn a salary. I am helping my children, my father, my uncle, more than six people in total. Without schooling, do you think I can do this?”

This project is currently benefiting more than 12,000 girls in the towns of Burtinle and Galkayo in Puntland.

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