With 4.4 million children out of school in a total population of just 9.2 million, Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrollment rates for primary school-aged children. Just four of every ten children are in school, most of whom start later than six years old—the recommended entry age. Further, gender disparities explicate a Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) of just 36 percent for girls; only a third of them are enrolled in South Central Somalia, where enrollment figures due to continuing insecurity are lowest.
“Traditional practices such as early marriage and Female Genital Mutilation [FGM] keep girls out of school,” said Susannah Price, UNICEF-Somalia Chief of Communications. “Girls often drop out at the onset of menstruation, which is interpreted as meaning a girl is ready for marriage…[and] often schools are not equipped with separate toilets or other suitable facilities for girls.”
FGM, the process by which the clitoris is either cut or burned, and in more severe cases, the external genitalia removed, is a pervasive practice in Somali culture and regarded as a means of curbing promiscuity, preserving virginity and increasing marriage prospects. But FGM and menstruation, which are both indicative of marital readiness, are not the only reasons parents lack incentive to educate their daughters.
The education system in Somalia has been decimated by two decades of conflict and displacement. “During the civil strife, schools were destroyed and the education system collapsed. Teachers migrated to other countries in search of work. The social system collapsed. The education system has been at a stand still—no new schools were built, the existing ones were neglected and many fell into a state of decay,” Price explained. “The poor quality of education due to a lack of learning materials and untrained teachers…[discourages] parents from taking their children to school. [In turn,] parents often [have] to pay to send their children to small private schools and [cannot] afford it,” she continued.
Simply, parents often have neither enough finances nor resources to privately educate all of their children. Thus, “they choose to send boys rather than girls to school. Mothers [prefer to] keep girls at home for household work,” Price said.
But, for the first time in over twenty years devoid of a central government, Somalia is in a state of profound political and social transition. While security remains high on the agenda for the new government, the restoration and reinvigoration of public services has also emerged as a priority. In June this year, during the first Education Conference to take place in Mogadishu, Garowe—Puntland—for two decades, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon, pledged that the Government would give education the same priority as defense and security.
And thus Somali authorities launched a comprehensive campaign last Sunday, August 8, International Literacy Day, in both Mogadishu, Garowe and Hargeisa—Somaliland—to enable one million children and youth access to education as part of the Go-2-School (G2S) initiative. This will enable a quarter of the young people currently out of school to claim their right not only to an education but also to a sanctuary and a semblance of normalcy during turbulent times. 450,000—or 45 percent—of those one million children are girls.
“The drive to get parents to bring their children to the free Government schools will be boosted by plans to build and renovate schools, train and support teachers, increase the capacity of Ministries and provide youth training facilities,” Price said. “There are also plans for basic skills training for half a million 14–18 year olds who are often seen as the age group most at risk of being recruited into armed groups or criminal gangs.”
G2S will facilitate basic education for six to 13 year olds, as well as alternative basic education for out of school children including pastoralists and the internally displaced. Intentions include: constructing and renovating formal primary schools; procuring supplies; designing and implementing technology-assisted programs; implementing diverse approaches to pastoralist education; supporting technical and vocational education; deploying youth-to-youth functional literacy programs; assisting with education sector coordination, committees, regional and district education offices; instructing life skills-based education; providing youth training facilities; and recruiting and training both teachers and technical assistants in education ministries.
Recruiting female teachers, particularly, will compel girls to seek education because, now, according to Price, they lack role models in school. She said, “Less than 17 percent of teachers in Somalia are female.”
With the G2S campaign, girls attending both formal and informal schools will learn subjects under the current Somali national curriculum: Math, Science, Social Studies, Somali and Arabic. Older children will learn functional literacy and numeracy, and those enrolled in the Technical Vocational Education and Training programs will concentrate on self-employment and employment dexterity.
“Currently, there are no subjects mainly tailored for girls. However gender, peace, hygiene education, environment and life skills are integrated in the curriculum,” Price said. “In some schools there are girls’ empowerment programs through clubs.”
G2S will be led and coordinated by the Ministries of Education, and supported by UNICEF and other partners within the education sector, the Diaspora and national key stakeholders. It will run for three years, estimated to cost US$117 million.
While initial expenses are higher than traditional life-sustaining emergency education programs, educating for resilience is the most effective way to assist Somalis in the move from crisis to sustainable development and peace, according to Price.
“Education for Somali girls is empowerment. Educating Somali girls will increase the prospects for increased family income, when the girls complete schooling and are employed. Through education, Somali girls are empowered to make decisions regarding their family size, economy and their lives. They will also be able to participate in politics and vie for leadership positions in their government and communities. Educated Somali girls will say no to harmful cultural practices such as FGM and early marriage. They are also more likely to bring up healthy better-nourished children and families, as they understand nutrition. In addition, they will be empowered to make life choices including protection against HIV and AIDs,” she said. “In most cases where girls are educated, there is a multiplier effect, as they support not only their siblings but their extended and immediate families to get an education.”
The improvement in security and access, and the commitment of the administrations, have made G2S an achievable goal in line with the Millennium Development Goal of achieving Universal Primary Education by 2015.
“There is such enthusiastic support for the G2S from the Government, regional authorities, NGOs, civil society, business leaders, the Diaspora and international community that, at UNICEF, we are confident that in the next three years, one million children will be in school,” Price added.