11 December 2012

Kenya: Celebrating Mama Hawa Aden Mohamed

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which started on November 25 , ended yesterday. Today we celebrate a brave Somali woman who has challenged militarism and fought violence against women.

In the beginning, she was known as 'Hawa with Trousers'. She was a witch - a bad omen that brought with her western ideas not fit for Somali culture but today they call her 'Mama', the 2012 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Winner.

As a younger woman, the fall of Siad Barre in 1991 saw Hawa move to Canada to live as a refugee. She returned to Somalia in 1995 to help co-found the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD) - a school offering free schooling to girls and vocational training for boys. The school additionally offers literacy and awareness courses for women, many of whom benefit from the relief items distributed to the displaced.

The centre has been a place of hope for many of the displaced men and women, among them Fatuma (not her real name) who sought refuge at the centre after being raped in one of the nearby camps. "He came into my tent and put a knife to my throat," Fatuma says of her attacker. "He then stabbed me on one hand and then he began to rape me."

The same man tried to rape Fatuma again but this time he was caught and jailed, but according to Hawa, the man's family is now in the process of trying to get him released.

Galkayo, which is 600 km north of Mogadishu, reports three to four rape cases a week. Consequently, many of the women who stay in the nearby camp have to be driven to and from the centre in a hired bus.

Gender-based violence is not the only challenge at GECPD. The centre also takes in girls twice-circumcised and possibly twice traumatised by female genital mutilation.

Ten-year-old Najuma is one of the survivors of dual circumcision. "Her parents thought it wasn't done properly the first time so they had it done again and she almost died,"says Hawa. "I ask the mothers why they do this to their daughters and I beg them not to do it and surprisingly they tell me that they don't want to do it.

Their problem is they don't want to be the first ones to stop it so that people start pointing them out as the instigators." Still on the practice of female genital mutilation, she adds, "It is used to be the culture. It still is the culture in Somalia but now there are safer ways of doing it."

Hawa has her own personal story on the ravages of FGM. "I had a sister who was circumcised at seven years old and I remember vividly what happened because there was no anesthesia at that time. She died because of FGM. In three days she was gone."

Though FGM is still rampant in Somalia, Hawa, through the tailoring course, has helped establish a system where some of the women in Galkayo can earn a living from making reusable sanitary towels.

The school now produces about 40,000 reusable towels a year and some of the women earn up to US$300 (Sh25,500) a month, money they use to pay their water bills, house rent and clothes for themselves and their families.

Muna Mohammed is among the women benefiting from the making of these towels. "I used to sell rain water in Mogadishu but the money I made from this would often be snatched from me by men much stronger than me. Sometimes these men would want to rape me so I always had to run to avoid getting raped." Muna eventually left Mogadishu for Galkayo where she took up tailoring to earn some money - the security offered for women at the centre was a contributing factor to the move.

A year ago, Galkayo was considered a relatively safe place. It has since become a hideout for pirates and al Shabaab militia fleeing the south.

The jobless youth at Galkayo are the most vulnerable to the lure of pirates and al Shabaab - some of the 40 or so men at GECPD admit to have at one point been tempted to join these factions.

Faizal Abdul is one of these men. "It's difficult when you have no mother and no father and then you see these men with all their money. You can easily join them," says Faizal who earns a living from welding in one of the training workshops at the centre. "With the money I make, I can comfortably look after my wife and children."

GECPD has come along way since its inception in 1999. In the beginning, the girls who joined the school had rocks thrown at them as they left or entered the school. Not so today when many parents encourage their children to attend if only for a chance at extra income for the family.

The women at GECPD are enrolled at the school on one condition - they all must attend classes which include a course on constitutional reading among other vocational training.

"Living in a society of impunity, killing and the clan system, what keeps me going is the desire to see everyone know their rights so that we can better put an end to some of these injustices. An education at whatever level is better than nothing."

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