The president of the Somali National Commission for UNESCO and former Somalia education minister has called on her country’s fledgling national government and growing tertiary education sector to redouble its efforts to boost the presence of women in Somali higher education.
Dr Khadar Bashir Ali, who was Somalia’s minister of education, culture and higher education from February 2014 to June 2016, told University World News that Somali society must accept that women are an essential human resources key to developing a country blighted by 16 years of civil war.
“As a Somali woman and a former minister of education, I truly believe that the government must be sincere in its efforts to increase the number of female students in schools, universities and in the workforce. People must truly believe that educating the females is a benefit and a plus,” she declared.
To achieve this, Khadar said transitional support was needed to ensure women progressed from primary to secondary education and henceforth to university.
She said gender policies and training should orient government actions, with quotas for female students and employees being created in higher education. Khadar explained that currently only nursing and teaching courses are set aside for women students.
But she stressed this was only part of the answer. Universities struggle to fill places that are set aside for women, she said, recalling how American development agency USAID with partners had created 50 teacher-training scholarships in Somaliland, (a breakaway region, not recognising the central government), yet local administrators awarded a majority of these bursaries to men, claiming women had not applied. The donor refused to accept this decision; all the male students were dropped from the programme, but no females were added.
“Social norms that favour male students in society are hard to overcome,” she said. “There is a pervasive culture of marginalisation and discrimination that is being ignored. A paradigm shift is paramount if we want women participation in education,” she added.
Professor Abdullahi Barise, president of the City University of Mogadishu, agreed that working to boost girls' enrollment and graduation at primary and secondary schools was a critical first step. He agreed that financial incentives had to be allied with cultural persuasion that women should enter higher education.
“This is as a result of financial obstacles coupled with societal and cultural constraints," he said. "If families cannot pay fees for both males and females, many would opt putting just males in universities. Some families might assign girls other tasks such as homemaking instead of sending them to universities. Some girls might get married earlier and fail to enroll in higher education or they may drop out before graduation,” he told University World News.
He called for provision of free education for women right from primary to university level, challenging universities to offer sponsorships and scholarships for women. “Without jeopardising fairness of the system and lowering standards at City University we have introduced affirmative action that favours female students and staff. We strive to seek sponsors for female students,” he said.
The university is also proactively trying to employ more female tutors to serve as mentors.
“We are going out of our way to headhunt Somali female scholars based abroad so as they can come and lecture back at home. We opted to hunt abroad because we lack capacity here, as there are fewer trained lecturers,” he said.
Female lecturers and students have been provided with dedicated safe spaces, including rest areas, gyms and other sporting facilities. City University is also planning special accommodation units which can house women on campus, an initiative being followed by other Somali universities and colleges, he said.
To attract and retain more female students, Yurub Muumin, the dean of the department of gender affairs at Amoud University in Somaliland, said the university offers special awards to top performers.
"In addition, we give female students extra free training in parallel to their main programmes, for example business entrepreneurship, management and leadership. [We facilitate] involvement in government programmes and even [advise] on how to job hunt so they have the upper hand and are able to compete effectively in the job and business market," she told University World News.
Akshan Yussuf a second-year medical student at Amoud University, told University World News that even though few women were enrolling in higher education institutions and more specifically in science-based courses, the future was promising. “The dean works to make sure there is gender balance to see more women like me join universities as students and later as lecturers,” she said.
Dr Shukria Dini, the founder of the Mogadishu-based Somali Women's Study Centre, which has for the past two years offered full scholarships to young women who want to pursue university studies (currently finding 36 women), called for comprehensive action. She said families, policy-makers, donors and society should invest in women's education and create opportunities such as scholarships, internships and jobs to encourage women to enter tertiary education.
She called on higher education institutions to reform themselves so they can accommodate the specific needs of women: “In these institutions, there is a need for specific spaces for female students such as toilets, reading areas, prayer areas ... they need to be learning spaces that are respectful of women and women friendly,” Dini said.
One key reform would be ensuring women graduates obtain meaningful employment after they graduate. “If this does not happen, it will support the belief that higher education is not for women because it will not lead to full-time and valuable employment,” she said.
Basic obstacles remain high. As well as the continuing political instability in Somalia, family responsibilities, housework/chores, lack of mentorship, lack of scholarships, lack of tutoring opportunities, lack of parental, spousal and society support for women to obtain higher education, all throw up hurdles, she said.
By contrast, higher education could reduce poverty among women, providing them access to decision-making processes, boosting “good governance, democracy, peace, stability and progress,” Dini said.
Mahad Wasuge, a senior researcher at the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies and an education expert, advised universities to give preference to women who want to take up careers in the higher education sector and offer attractive pay packages.
“Universities should also adopt an affirmative action that will see more women enrolled in various programmes,” he said.
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