Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mama Hawa - transforming girl's lives with education



Mama Hawa in the classroom.
“Illiteracy in women is the reason why they
can't demand their rights”

Her genteel bespectacled looks belie the steely determination that 2012 Nansen Refugee Award Laureate Hawa Aden Mohamed has demonstrated she has in spades.

The founder of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD) in Puntland, Somalia, Hawa has overcome the opposition of war lords, local leaders and the dangers of operating in one of the world’s worst conflict zones to help transform the lives of thousands of girls  in Somalia by providing education ,vocational training,shelter and protection.

A traditional patriachical society fractured by two decades of conflict has led to Somalia being rated as the fifth worst place to be a woman. High maternal mortality rates, female genital mutilation (FMG), rape, lack of health care and opportunities and poor access to education all mean that Somalia women and girls are extremely vulnerable.


Providing education for displaced girls
Since its establishment in 1999 the GECPD has been a beacon of hope in the lives of the many women and girls who have passed through its doors. Galkayo is home to a large internally displaced population with single girls and female headed households abundant in large numbers.

Mama Hawa sits with Naomi Steer.
During a recent visit to East Africa, UNHCR invited me to meet with Hawa, known better as “Mama Hawa” a few days after she had been awarded the prestigious 2012 UNHCR global award Nansen Refugee Award for her humanitarian work.

Mama Hawa is a very modest person and she stressed that she accepted the Nansen Award in honour of all the efforts of everyone who had helped make GECPD a success. She thanked UNHCR for being there from the early days but gave most credit to the women and girls who had reached out for the opportunities provided at the GECPD.

Community empowerment
A strong believer in the power of grass roots change she told me how she had worked to bring in male community leaders to support the centre: “I talk to the family, the brother and father”. As she tells these men, they need to value the women and girls in their lives: “you have a girl child, a wife a mother - you need them.”

A sewing class at Galkayo Education Centre for Peace
and Development (GECPD),
Mama Hawa knows firsthand how important the support of men are in bringing about change for  the better for women and girls. Her own father was an early supporter of female education and with his encouragement she went on to study as a teacher eventually rising to the head of Somalia’s Department of Education.

For Mama Hawa, education is the key to opening up girls potential
When civil war broke out in 1991 she fled with millions of other Somali refugees eventually finding safety in Canada. But it was only a few years later that she decided to return to Somalia to try to help to start building Somalia from the bottom up.

She established schools, adult literacy centres and vocational training action schemes.  One of her first innovations was to establish a hostel providing shelter to the  many women making their way from southern Somalia to Galkayo and on to Bosasso in the north. Before her help, women would sleep on top of lorries out in the open as there was no accommodation available to women.

Many things have changed:
What does the future hold for the women and girls of Somalia? Mama Hawa is cautiously optimistic in light of the  recent political and security developments in Somalia. She believed it was vital for women to become active in the local community at all levels and hopes that more women will enter parliament to help bring legislative change around gender-based violence issues, particularly FGM.

Ultimately however it isn’t a problem just for females but for all of the community. As she said it was about making it clear that women’s empowerment is about “you and me together.”

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