GALKAYO, Somalia, September 18 (UNHCR) – When Hawa Aden Mohamed was a young girl, her father made a decision that would change her life – and through her, transform the lives of thousands of Somali girls. He sent her to school.
Hawa Aden Mohamed went on to earn two university degrees before launching an ambitious programme to educate and empower Somali women and girls, many of them displaced by conflict or famine. Today, UNHCR announced that she has won the 2012 Nansen Refugee Award, which honours extraordinary service to those who flee war or persecution.
"Without education, you are unaware of so many things," Hawa Aden Mohamed said in a recent interview in the town of Galkayo, some 600 kilometres north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. "Without education, you do not exist much – physically yes, but mentally and emotionally, you do not exist."
Once a refugee herself, Hawa Aden Mohamed returned to her homeland in 1995 and discovered her calling. As co-founder of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD), she has helped restore hope and opportunity to local residents as well as those seeking refuge from the nation's long-running conflict and recurring droughts.
The centre offers free schooling to girls as well as literacy and awareness classes for women, tailoring courses, vocational training for boys, and food and other relief items to the displaced. Since it opened in 1999, the number of girls receiving education in the Mudug district has risen from 7 per cent to 40 per cent, the highest in the country, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
GECPD encourages women and girls to see themselves as full members of society who possess fundamental human rights. And it openly addresses the complex issues of female genital mutilation, puberty, early marriage, rape and HIV/AIDS.
Local residents were initially wary of Hawa Aden Mohamed's aims. "The mosques spoke of us, said we were devils … but we just kept quiet," she said. "It calmed down, when they saw how many, almost 250 women, were taking classes in adult education. We had built around 12 schools."
Won over by the centre's success, the people of Galkayo now call her Eedo (aunt) or Mama Hawa. "We always say there is hope, we should not lose our hope, our torch of life," she said. "We say this, but in reality it's very difficult, especially for women and children."
Born in the town of Baidoa in 1949, Mama Hawa lost a sister, Fatouma, who was circumcised around age seven and died soon afterwards from an infection. Their aunt, who organized the circumcision, did not know any better, she said. "The word 'why' was not there."
Mama Hawa continued her schooling in Mogadishu and then spent eight years in India, earning degrees in nutrition and child development. She returned home to work for Somalia's Ministry of Education, where she headed the department of women's education, and later opened a clothing business with one of her sisters.
When the military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, she fled to Kismayo, Somalia's southern port city, and then to Kenya. She moved to Canada through a family reunification programme, but her heart was in Somalia.
Returning to her homeland in 1995, she set up a women's education centre in Kismayo. She fled a few years later when rival militia turned the town into a battleground. "I even came without my glasses," she recalled. "I left them behind, everything left behind."
She came back from exile a second time in 1999 and settled in Galkayo, as her husband was working at a nearby research institute.
In recent years GECPD has begun working with boys, too. It offers carpentry and welding classes as well as a recreational space to help keep young boys off the streets and prevent them from falling into the clutches of pirates or armed groups.
Amid a slight improvement in the political situation, Mama Hawa and her team are teaching girls about the new constitution, so that they will know their rights.
"Education never finishes," she said. "Every day you will see something new. Myself, I am not well educated. I cannot say everything. Education is always a continuous learning process. Education is everything."
By Clar Ni Chonghaile in Galkayo, Somalia