By Lensay Abadula
Thursday, September 10, 2009
In spite of Somalia's worst humanitarian crisis in 18 years, almost 200 women are taking advantage of scholarships to attend university in an effort aimed at meeting one of the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--For professor Stanford Mukasa, the large number of women in his journalism certificate course--almost all of the roughly 50 students enrolled--at Puntland State University in Garoowe, Somalia, was a rare but pleasant sight.
In a country where women usually work inside the home, journalism is a male-dominated field, he said.
The program's current success is all the more gratifying because of its troubled start.
A few years ago the program halted when students were forced to drop out, unable to pay the tuition of about $130 per semester.
It was painful to see the women leave, Mukasa said. "For many of these women you could tell there was a burning desire in them to tell their experiences."
The course was revived in 2008 as students received scholarships from funding that came from the United Nations Development Program, said Norman Shitote, director of Puntland State University's online distance learning.
The story of this journalism course and the women's difficulty meeting the program's costs inspired further funding for women's higher education in Somalia. In her trip to Somalia in 2007, Elizabeth Latham, executive director of the U.S. Committee for the U.N. Development Program, or UNDP-USA, an organization fostering support with the United States for UNDP programs, learned about the situation and brought her knowledge home.
In response, the committee launched the Somali Women's Scholarship Fund in early 2008 to finance young women's higher education in Somalia, a country where only 28 percent of female teens were enrolled in secondary school in 2006 and only 4 percent continued on to university.
"This hits the millennium development goal on gender equality and also on women's education," said Latham. "So this was something that kind of developed organically because of the situation and the realities on the ground in Somalia."
The United Nations has developed eight major humanitarian global goals, which target issues such as poverty, HIV-AIDS and environmental sustainability.
Under goal No. 3, the United Nations hopes to eliminate gender disparities at all levels of education no later than 2015, which the U.N. Department of Public Information says, at its current rate of progress, is unlikely to be met.
The scholarship fund is to be administered by seven participating universities in Somalia that will receive support from the U.N. Development Program.
In 2008, the UNDP-USA funded female students at the Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development, or SIMAD, in Mogadishu, the nation's capital. The institute was given priority because it was the first educational institution to submit a completed application for the scholarship. In the first semester 102 women were enrolled; in the second semester 97. The organization wants to fund the students' entire educational program at the institute.
Not enough money has been raised to extend the scholarship fund to other universities, making the management institute the only school where the program is currently running.
"It's been really difficult especially in this economic environment to find donors for the project," Latham said.
Since the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been a country without a central government.
In recent years the U.S.- and Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government has fought with the Islamic Courts Union for political control.
The Islamic Courts Union, an umbrella group of Islamic courts and affiliated militia groups, took control of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia in 2006, bringing stability to the region. However, radical voices began emerging from the group, alarming the United States and Ethiopia. With U.S. backing, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006 and ousted the Islamic Courts Union.
Violence has continued as the current government fights insurgent groups. Somalia is now facing its worst humanitarian crisis in the last 18 years, according to the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia. Half the population, or about 3.76 million people, needs humanitarian assistance.
"Somalia is a difficult place for anyone to make it all the way through high school," Latham said. "And one of the things that, you know, in order to go to college, you have to have finished high school. We're investing in people who have already shown an amazing ability to persevere and to achieve, despite a whole host of obstacles placed in front of them."
About $1,000 sends one woman to college for a year in Somalia, a cost out of the reach of most Somali women.
Before the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991, college education was public and free.
Universities in Somalia are now private institutions, which makes tuition the responsibility of individual students.
For many families this means choosing which of their children will attend and boys are usually given this opportunity, said Hawa Siad, executive director of the Somali Women and Children's Alliance, based in Columbus, Ohio.
Members of the Somali diaspora, however, are now demanding change as they send remittances back to Somalia, Siad said. "They're telling them you have to send your daughters to school."
But Siad warns that scholarships for higher education can go only so far under current conditions.
"There is no stability at all," she said. "I believe unless there is law and order no matter how you send money it's not going to reach the people."
In areas such as Mogadishu, Siad said that young women's lack of scholarship funding is a minor concern compared to the overarching problem of political instability.
Although not specifically targeted, universities can be affected by conflict, said Alvaro Rodriguez, country director of the U.N. Development Program in Somalia.
For example, the Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development was hit by indiscriminate shelling and stray bullets during the Ethiopian invasion in Mogadishu and the institute was forced to relocate at least twice.
"Universities' only safety measure is their neutrality and credibility, and the good image they have within the society," Rodriguez said.
Cultural practices, such as early marriage, can also impede a young woman's efforts at higher education, according to Rodriguez.
It is sometimes hard for young women who are married to continue their studies, said Puntland State University senior Rahma Bashir Ali.
"I think girls should finish up with their studies and have a secure job, then they can plan on getting married," she said.
After graduating, young Somalis face a discouraging job market. But Puntland State University's Shitote said that economic opportunities are improving.
"At this moment, jobs are few but with stability building up, opportunities for other openings like private business are becoming a reality," Shitote said.
Lensay Abadula is a freelance writer based in New York.
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