Mogadishu — The speech of 16-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations this month has served as an inspiration for the fight for women's rights and girls' education in Somalia.
Last October, Yousafzai nearly died when Pakistani Taliban gunmen shot her in the head for advocating girls' rights to education. Instead of retreating in fear, Yousafzai increased her activism after the attack.
"Malala Yousafzai is a symbol for girls around the world," said Somali Women's Association for Development activist Ayan Abdirahman. "Malala Yousafzai has proven, through her determination and courage, that we can overcome social hurdles, terrorists and anything that can stand in the way of our campaign to protect girls' rights to education."
In a speech before the UN Youth Assembly in New York on July 12th -- her 16th birthday -- Yousafzai called on her peers to stand up for universal education in the face of extremism and for governments worldwide to ensure free compulsory schooling for all children.
"The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us -- but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died, and strength, power and courage was born," Yousafzai said.
"So here I stand, one girl among many," she said. "I speak -- not for myself, but for all girls and boys. I raise up my voice -- not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard."
"The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens," she said. "The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them."
"Let us pick up our books and our pens; they are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world," Yousafzai said.
The UN dubbed July 12th "Malala Day", coinciding with the release of a joint report by the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and Save the Children on the global state of education. According to the report, 28.5 million children living in conflict-ridden countries were out of school, and 55% of the 57 million children out of school worldwide were girls.
Less than 25% of Somali girls attend school:
In Somalia, the imbalance between girls and boys going to school is pronounced.
"Somali girls constitute the majority of children who do not attend school, and this is especially true in poverty-stricken communities in which girls are bereft of the right to attend school," said Ayan Abdirahman of the Somali Women's Association for Development. "The rate of girls attending school in Somalia is less than 25% in a country that is thought to have the lowest rate of school attendance in the world."
Social hurdles impede Somali girls from attending school, such as a traditional preference for educating boys over girls and a widespread belief that educating girls is a waste of resources, she said.
"The majority of girls do not get the chance to go to primary school, as most mothers and fathers -- particularly in poorer communities -- prefer to send their male children to school when their resources are limited," Abdirahman told Sabahi. "Girls undertake domestic duties or are married off at a young age to relieve the family of their economic burden."
Girls who are forced to marry at a young age drop out of school because they fear being teased when they become pregnant, she said.
Fatima Osman Gure, 17, is a student at the Mamur Secondary School in Mogadishu, however her family could not afford to send her three younger sisters -- aged 15, 12 and 9 -- to school.
"I consider myself lucky because I have had the opportunity to attend school, and I hope this will help me to have a bright future so I can help my country too," she told Sabahi, adding that she worries about the future of her sisters.
Educating girls crucial for Somalia's development:
Despite government calls for strengthening polices for girls' education and efforts by non-governmental organisations to mobilise social campaigns, much more needs to be done, said Fartun Ahmed of the Galkayo Educational Centre for Peace and Development.
"Although the number of girls attending school has increased more than before, rigid family practices towards girls hinder them from going to school and limit their academic advancement," she told Sabahi.
"The problem lies in the traditional culture of Somali society, which usually belittles the rights of girls and women," Ahmed said. "So we have to focus on raising awareness among local communities with regard to the importance of educating girls, making education more accessible and creating equal opportunities for all children to attend school."
Mohamed Ismail, a 24-year-old law student at the University of Somalia, said Somalis should rally around Yousafzai's words and press the cause of girls' education because educating girls is crucial for Somalia's development.
"Malala Yousafzai's struggle is an example of courage to be followed by all girls in this universe because she is defending a fundamental right of any girl in the world, which is the right to education," he told Sabahi.
"Educating girls is hugely important; as the saying goes -- an educated girl means an educated society. This will raise economic productivity, reduce poverty as well as bring down the rates of infant and child mortality and deaths among mothers," Ismael said.