Hawa Abdullahi – A hero paving the way for Somali girls

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Hawa Abdullahi is a principal of Dr. Abdalla Derow Primary School for Girls in Baidoa, Bay Region of South West State, Somalia. Photograph: Abdirahman Abdulle / Save the Children.

For Hawa Abdullahi, being the principal of Dr. Abdalla Derow Primary School for Girls is not just a job for. It is a dream come true. It is in this same school that she learned how to read and write and her life long passion to give Somali girls a chance in life began here. “I always had the interest to learn and to change the lives of my family and the entire community, ” says Hawa. To many, Hawa is not only a principal but also a role model, a champion and change maker. 

Hawa attended both her primary and secondary education at Dr. Abdalla Derow Primary School is in Baidoa, Bay Region of South West State, Somalia. Back then, the school was fully operational and under the care of the central government. Hawa went on to join Southern State University in Baidoa to continue with her studies. She graduated with a first class Bachelor’s degree in Education.

Like many other families in this region, Hawa’s parents relied on farming activities to sustain themselves. The income generated from the farm just about covered the family’s basic needs. Hawa recalls the difficult moments and tells me “I sometimes would go to school on an empty stomach but this did not stop me from realizing my dreams.”

In 1991, Somalia’s central government collapsed and the country went into civil war. Decades of violence and hunger ruined the spirit of education. Access to education in Somalia was hampered by lack of learning facilities, materials and quality teachers. During this period, the communities remained the backbone of the education system. Hawa was one of the female volunteer teachers who fought hard to keep the school operational in the absence of government systems. Most of the female volunteer teachers sacrificed their time and energy to ensure children had access to some sort of education. At first, they started enrolling their own children to the school. Hawa even inspired the local communities to maintain the school and provide daily meals for the volunteer teachers.

In 2005, The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) constructed new structures and rehabilitated the old ones. While the construction was taking place, Hawa advocated and successfully convinced the community to turn the school into girls’ only primary School. To her surprise, they agreed and the school was reopened in 2006. A massive campaign to mobilize the community to let their young girls gain basic education had the desired effect with a good number of girls enrolled. “I was very happy to see the increase in enrollment particularly the large volume coming from the vulnerable families including those from settlements from Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), despite having numerous challenges,” recalls Hawa.

The reading corner at Dr. Abdalla Derow Primary School in Baidoa, Bay Region of South West State, Somalia. Photograph: Mohamed Osman / Save the Children

According to World Bank, school enrollment in formal education in Somalia remains one of the lowest rates around the world. The situation is even worse for girls where the rat is at about 37%. Women are marginalized in this community and largely, in the society. “Only a third of the girls enrolled in school attend school regularly and most of those drop out early,” admits Hawa. This is usually attributed lack of support and encouragement from the community, child marriages and lack of girl friendly spaces in schools to allow girls enjoy learning as much as boys.

In addition, Somalia has one of the highest rates of Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting (FGM/C), in the world. A recent Save the Children research found out that 9 out 10 Somali girls between the ages of 15 and 17 have undergone one form of FGM/C. This too forces girls to drop out or miss school for months.  To reduce the negative impact this has on young girls, Hawa works very closely with girls that have undergone FGM/C and early or child marriage and who are at risk of dropping out of school. “I continuously encourage these girls to continue learning even under these difficult circumstances because I believe education is the most powerful tool they have to change their future. ”

Hawa recognize that parents may not have the means to send their children to school however she believes there is an underlying unfairness. “It’s a normal practice in Somalia to send boys to get an education while the girls are expected to stay home” says Hawa with a look of frustration on her face. Hawa has managed to influence many parents to send their daughters to school but the challenges still remain. “When you educate a girl, you educate the entire community. Investing time and energy to educate just one girl can help to change the negative cultural beliefs,” says Hawa.

Through the generous funding from Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Save the Children directly supports 24 schools in Baidoa including Dr Abdalla Derow Primary School. In addition to providing learning materials, Save the Children is working with Community Education Committees and Child-to-Child Clubs to strengthen the participation of parents, teachers, community leaders and children in building active and resilient school communities. The local communities have come together to improve the learning environment by planting trees, flowers and conducting enrolment campaigns to bring back school-aged children, particularly girls.

Save the Children supports the school in Baidao in many ways including;

  • Paying incentives for 14 teachers
  • Provision of teaching and learning materials
  • Rehabilitation of existing classrooms, toilets and water points
  • Erected small libraries for 5 schools
  • Capacity building for teachers on teacher wellbeing, code of conduct (COC), Psychological first aid (PFA), gender sensitive pedagogy and other basic teaching methodologies.

Every time I visit Dr. Abdalla Derow Primary School, I witness many happy girls who clearly enjoy being in school, learning, reading books and being in a safe and clean environment with their peers. Hawa has been teaching for over thirty years. When I asked what prompted her to become a teacher, she replied “I wanted to make a positive change for our children’s future.”

A teacher is more than just an educator. A teacher is an ambassador building bridges and introducing their students to a vast world of knowledge. The girls at Dr. Abdalla Derow School, their families and the greater community are aware and do appreciate the active support Save the Children plays in their community and across Somalia. “We all appreciate and are thankful for Save the Children’s continued support provided to the school, teachers and the girls,” says Hawa.