NAIROBI (TrustLaw) – When war broke out in Somalia in 1991, Hawa Aden Mohamed was one of boatfuls of refugees who fled to neighbouring Kenya.
The dangerous journey from Somalia’s southern port city of Kismayo to Mombasa in Kenya took four days. At one point, the boat nearly capsized.
With characteristic modesty, 63-year-old Mohamed – more commonly known as “Mama Hawa,” or “the Queen of Galkayo” after the town where she now lives in central Somalia – dismissed the terrifying ordeal.
“I suffered. It is something that I remember,” she told Trustlaw at an event in Nairobi, Kenya, last week.
At the event, organised by UNHCR Somalia to mark 16 days of activism against gender violence, she spoke in public for the first time since winning the United Nations refugee agency’s (UNHCR) Nansen Award in September.
“Still I was not like them – the woman who had four children, who had practically nothing, who had no money, no food,” she said to TrustLaw.
She quickly turned the conversation away from herself to her fellow Somali women.
“Everybody has a huge story to tell. And still you look at them – they survive,” she said.
‘WHO HEARS WHEN THE CHILD CRIES?’
“War is very difficult for everybody… but it affects women more,” said Mohamed, who was director of women’s education in the Somali government for 15 years in the 1970s and 1980s. “Who runs with the children? It is the women. Who finds the children something to eat? It is the woman. Who hears when the child cries? It is the mother.”
Mohamed found safety in Canada as a refugee and got a job as a social worker. But she later returned to Somalia, determined to struggle alongside – and for – other Somali women.
In 1995, she returned to Kismayo and set up the Juba Women’s Education Centre, founded on her belief that education is the key to improving Somali women’s lives. Around 70 percent of women in Somalia are illiterate.
“The situation we are in, as women and as girls, only education can change,” said Mohamed.
A 2011 survey carried out by TrustLaw found Somalia to be rated the fifth worst place in the world to be a woman due to lack of access to education as well as other factors including poor healthcare and economic opportunities, as well as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and rape.
“Our culture is very punitive towards women,” Mohamed said. “The culture has to change.”
She believes that with education women and girls can learn to think critically and gain the confidence to speak up for themselves.
“Women have to participate,” she said. “They are keeping quiet and once you are keeping quiet, you are complicit… If women don’t really participate on their own and decide, I don’t know how peace can be obtained.”
Her stance has made her unpopular with traditionalists who called her all sorts of names.
“I was the ‘witch’,” she said in a UNHCR video. “I had ideas, which are not good in our culture.”
FORCED TO FLEE AGAIN
Men with guns have also stood between Mohamed and her goals.
In 1999, she was forced to flee to Kenya once again as Kismayo became a battlefield between rival warlords. Undaunted, she swiftly returned, this time to Galkayo, and set up the Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development (GECPD).
Since it opened its doors, GECPD has helped more than 215,000 displaced people and victims of violence. 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 Mohamed came to Galkayo, the number of girls receiving education in the district has risen from 7 percent to 40 percent, the highest in the country.
Many of the beneficiaries are women and girls living in the 21 internally displaced persons (IDP) camps dotted around the town. Girls working as tailors in the centre earn up to $300 a month, which enables them to buy food and clothing for their families.
‘I WOULD HAVE DIED’
Mohamed also supports women and girls who have been raped and speaks out to the community against FGM. Her sister, Fatouma, died from an infection after she was circumcised aged about seven.
Around 98 percent of Somali girls are infibulated, the most severe form of FGM, in which all external genitalia are cut off and the vaginal opening is stitched closed.
“I had huge damage and pain,” said a 10-year-old girl, who Mohamed took to hospital after her parents had circumcised her for a second time, thinking that it had not been done properly the first time.
“I would have died if Mama Hawa hadn’t been there,” the girl said in the UNHCR video.
Mohamed shows little sign of slowing down, despite health problems.
“Living in this society – the society of impunity, society of killing, society of tribalism, society of the clan system – the situation makes me continue,” she told UNHCR.
“When I see my people, especially women and children, it really drives me.”