GALKAYO, 30 May 2007 (IRIN) - Hawa Aden Mohamed was motivated to establish the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development by her own experience, particularly the opportunity to go to school at 14.
"If I had not got that chance, where would I be now?" she asks rhetorically. "That is why I am a believer in second chances," she tells IRIN in Galkayo town, 700km north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
Starting as a teacher trainer at Lafole College, Mohamed rose to become a senior officer in the Somali education ministry before retiring to set up the centre in 1999.
"We started with 120 girls after a survey showed that very few girls in Galkayo were going to school," she explained. "At the time, all schools were fee-based. Only families with money or those who were getting help from the diaspora were sending their children to school - and it was always the boys."
She realised that cultural and economic considerations were the main hindrance to girls' education in Somalia. "When families don't have much they will send the boy to school and keep the girl at home," she told IRIN. "We decided we were going to begin small until we had a feel for the conditions."
Girls also stayed at home to care for their younger siblings when the parents were out trying to earn a living. Sometimes they had to work to help the family.
"I decided to focus on the girls to see if could make a dent in the gap," Mohamed said. "But in the beginning, we had no facilities and the girls had to sit on the floor."
That, however, was the least of the challenges she would face.
Fighting the detractors
From day one, Mohamed's project faced widespread scepticism, suspicion and outright opposition from some members of her community. "When you introduce a new idea or there is a deviation from the norm there is always opposition," she said.
She was accused of bringing foreign ideas into the community and of turning the girls away from their religion and of trying "to change the girls into boys".
One day, her compound was fired on; another time a grenade was thrown into the compound; one night, a 72m perimeter wall was destroyed.
"Some of my detractors were genuine and did not understand what the centre was trying to do," she said. "But there were some who were malicious, even going to the mosques to denounce me. It was rough, but I was committed. We persevered and slowly we convinced the elders and the women that what we were doing was for the benefit of the community."
There was a second hurdle - an economic one. The centre had no track record and Mohamed found it hard to get international aid. "I had to start from somewhere, so I decided on the Somali diaspora community," she explained. "Members of the diaspora in 13 countries came to the rescue and funded the first project."
Eventually she also received support from United Nations agencies and international NGOs.
That was years ago. Today, the centre is a modern educational facility, with all the equipment for vocational training as well as a regular school. It is a bustling part of the Galkayo landscape and enjoys enormous respect from the community.
"We are now at the other extreme. We have the total support of the entire community," Mohamed said.
At present, 750 girls are enrolled in primary school (grades one to eight) and another 2,400 in adult literacy classes. There is a separate category of girls that Mohamed calls "second chance".
"These are the young ones who cannot make it to school during the morning because they have house chores or they work to support their families," she explains.
The group of about 830 girls attends afternoon classes, which combine adult education and regular classes. Another 85 are undergoing skills training in tailoring, book-keeping, catering and hotel management.
The centre not only teaches formal education and life skills; the girls also learn about human rights, violence against woman and peace-building.
"We teach them about their rights as girls [and] the contributions they can make to society," said Mohamed. Given Somalia's war-ravaged status, they are also encouraged to participate in peace-building efforts undertaken by the centre.
Another aspect of life they learn about is the dangers of female genital mutilation/cutting - a common practice in Somalia. "It is part of everything we teach here," Mohamed explained. "It is not Islamic and it is harmful to the girl child and must be stopped."
To keep the centre going, Mohamed puts in long hours and is at her desk long after the staff have gone home. "She is up as early as 5am and is still at her desk sometimes at 10pm," said one staff member.
Construction of a hostel for girls from the displaced community and minorities in Galkayo is continuing. According to the staff, while their girls come from the poorest in the community, others who have been forced to flee their homes by conflict are worse off.
"Most [of the displaced girls] get one meal a day if they are lucky and live in dwellings that do not have any of the basics," Mohamed said. "The new hostel will provide them with a wholesome environment, whereby they can concentrate on learning instead of worrying about food and shelter from the elements."
The centre has also started an outreach programme for some of the internally displaced people (IDPs) living in Galkayo and has set up a school near one of the IDP camps.
"We are teaching 215 children in two shifts from the camp," said Hawa Yusuf, one of the centre's supervisors. "We would have liked to reach all the IDPs, but we do not have the financial resources to do it."
In Harfo village, about 70km north of Galkayo, Mohamed has set up an orphanage for 60 girls, with another 160 coming for daytime classes.
There is also a guest house that will be operational within a week. "The income from it will support and defray some running costs from the centre," she said. "It is an income-generating project, which will contribute to the education of the girls."
Mohamed's work has won her numerous international awards, but she is still looking to do more for her community. Among other plans, she wants to increase the intake of girls and start secondary schools.
"She gets immense satisfaction from the work she does and will continue to do," said her sister, Amina Aden, who helps run the centre. "She is not easily discouraged."
Appealing to the international community for more support, Mohamed said: "The aim is to close the gap between girls and boys. The Somali diaspora community should return and help their follow Somalis. We need them if we are going to rebuild our country."
She singled out the education sector as a priority. "Someone without an education is like someone in darkness," she added. "We must give education the number one priority."
Local residents in Galkayo say she is a resource to their community. "She has had some rough times, but there is no doubt that she is doing a wonderful job," Anwar Mohamed Abshir, a prominent businessman in the town, told IRIN.