I moved from Leiden, Europe’s ‘student-town’ located in the Netherlands, where i’d lived, studied and worked for over 15 years, to live and work in Garowe, the administrative capital of Puntland State of Somalia. It has been 5 years since my relocation. I had come with my husband and daughter who was 6 months old at the time. I was recruited as an EU Consultant ‘Gender Technical Advisor’ attached to the Gender Unit of the Puntland Ministry of Education and Higher Education where I can still be found today. The topics of gender in education and girls’ education are both, beyond my work, very dear to me for many reasons I will discuss later in this article.
I occasionally write articles and poems about my work and life in Somalia, my personal experiences as well as professional work on what I come across in the field- in terms of what is working/or not working on girls education in Somalia. For the past 9 months I have been collecting data, visiting schools and making observations as well as interacting with female students in schools for this paper which examines how teachers and educators encourage Somali girls in schools to become future leaders and pursue and demonstrate leadership skills. For this particular study we asked the following guiding questions;
- What does it mean to be a good (female) leader in Somalia today?
- Why is it important to talk about good leadership with Somali girls at a very early age?
- How do educators promote good leadership skills amongst students?
- What qualities must a good (female) leader have in Somalia today?
- How do teachers and the school management at large encourage girls to be vocal/active in class?
- How do teachers and the school management at large encourage girls to participate in school affairs and in decision making?
- Why is it important that teachers are sensitized about gender stereotypes and gender-sensitive teaching methodologies?
- How have others done it? What are best practices? How much of these can we here in Somalia emulate?
- What is the government with support from partners doing to combat this? What strategic interventions are proofing to be effective and which ones not?
Elsewhere in the world resourcefulness, resilience, enterprise, adventurousness, risk-taking, determination, standing up for yourself and leadership skills are valued attributes in girls in schools. Some schools, for example, in The UK promote creativity and creative behavior among girls through comedy and other expressive forms of creativity to help prepare them for their future careers. It is claimed that these skills would help young women be encouraged to challenge authority to prevent girls being stereotyped as subservient as they grow up and enter the workplace.
Although some promising reform is taking place in the education sector, the above-mentioned interventions stands in stark contrast to the reality in Somalia today where female students are verbally and non-verbally persuaded to remain silent as a way to promote good and timid behavior. It is taboo in Somalia for girls to speak in public. It is a shameful act to eat in public, to smile, to laugh or even show teeth. And so when some of the brightest girls raise their hands in order to speak in class, they traditionally cover their mouths while doing so. It is not only WHAT is taught IN schools that is of long-term importance to girls in Somalia but also HOW it is taught. In the schools I visited, I sometimes came across, teachers who only spoke to boys seated in a row on one side of the class while the girls occupied the other row on the other side of the classroom. The teacher is often not aware that by not looking at the direction of the girls he is in fact speaking an unspoken language, one that shows dismissal and discrimination by favoring and excluding one group from full participation in the lessons and in class. In many schools, you will most likely find that the majority if not all class monitors are male students.
The environment in which girls can develop vital leadership skills are scarce in schools in Somalia. Another important point is that a Somali girl’s desire to be a leader changes with age. Veery few girls transition from primary to secondary school and the dropout rate for girls in secondary schools is very high according to the recent EMIS survey conducted by the Ministry.
The Somali word for leadership is ‘hogaamin’ and for a leader ‘hogaamiye’. They are terms that are very rarely used and if so it is in a political context preserved for men. In education institutions, stereotypes result in certain fields being reserved for certain groups. Many girls aim to be nurses, for they see this as a suitable career for women, whereas they do not go for scientific and technical fields because they believe this is reserved for men. In workplaces, managers and directors are men, secretaries and personal assistants are women. Schools in Somalia have done a systematic long-term disservice to female students in Somalia by questioning their intelligence and by defining their performance in terms of their compliance to societal expectations of behavior and effort that seek to reinforce gender stereotypes. Here, it long accustomed to avoiding delicate concerns about adolescent development and where women traditionally stay at home to help raise younger siblings, cook and clean for their families while the sons continue their educations and eventually find careers and help look after elderly parents. Certain cultural manifestations and attributes are still intact in Somali society which reinforce that thinking and remind women and girls of their status.
Many people believe that educated women do not make good wives because an educated woman is often away from the house and this would negatively impact the children, the family and the home at large. There are all kinds of proverbs in existence that underpin and emphasize this negative thinking. The presence of female role models and female teachers in schools positively impacts the attendance and even performance of girls in schools yet there are no or few female teachers in secondary schools in Somalia. Furthermore, there are also no female Head Teachers/School Principals in any of the schools. In Puntland, the fist and indeed last ever female Head Teacher/School Principal that Puntland has ever had is Mrs Faduma-Shukri Abdi Hersi and she was made to leave her position in 2011, the same year that I came to Puntland from Europe. She is currently the Head of the Gender Unit where I work. Without a doubt, when little girls with big dreams see female cleaners every day, every week and every year, then that is what they will aspire to be. But when they see hard working female teachers and school managers than they will have a different outlook on life altogether.
Somali women have been robbed of their own thinking. Patriarchy and the patriarchal nature of the Somali society have institutions in place that keep the stereotypes and bondage alive. But it’s about time that Somali women and girls got up, woke up and got their act together. Somali women and men are going to have to do some hard thinking and talking as well as decision-making if we’re going to develop our daughters and female students into leaders.
Schools managers who have endeavored to serve the needs of their students must express appreciation of girls’ patronage and nurture their desire to be of service to their schools and communities. It’s never too early to start helping girls understand leadership and their own potential for it. Any time in a Somali girl’s life, and any particular experience or situation- is an appropriate time to address and encourage leadership development. There are many opportunities for leadership and the development of leadership capacity in a girl’s life. Almost everything significant that happens in the world starts with a leader or a group of leaders who care enough about something to organize and get others moving toward a goal.
If Somalia is to make any significant progress it needs to take a different path in cultivating substantial leadership in its men and women and in building leaders who are capable of working on relevant issues such as state-building and good governance. Somalia needs both male and female leaders who do not have protocol-polite hands and are who will walk hand in hand and work with each other.
Intervention programs focusing on girls leadership
Some of the ongoing projects that have a girls leadership component include;
1. The Girls Empowerment Forums (Supported by MercyCorps, SOMGEP/CARE)
2. The Women Council for Girl-child Education (Supported by MercyCorps)
3. Gender Forums (Education is Light/CARE)
4. Female Mentors (Supported by SOMGEP/CARE)