For many children in Somalia, going to school and receiving a good education is still a dream out of their reach.
More than three million Somali children are out of school. In many areas across the country, parents are not able to fund their children’s education.
In addition to poverty, long distances to school, safety concerns, social norms favouring boys’ education, and lack of teachers, particularly female teachers, and the low availability of sanitation facilities, these factors stop parents from enrolling children, particularly girls, in school.
As part of Somalia’s development, the United Nations is working with educational authorities to change this – but that support extends to Somalis who have taken action.
One of those Somalis is Aisha Ahmed Hussein, also known as ‘Aisha-Gesdir.’
In Galkayo, the capital city of the Mudug region in the Somali Federal Member State of Puntland, Ms. Hussein is making a difference.
Her experiences with her own early childhood education, coupled with a desire to contribute to her country’s development and an entrepreneurial streak, led her to establish the Aayatiin Early Childhood Education, Care and Development Centre in 2016.
‘From a young age, I’ve always been drawn to children. During my own childhood, I would play teacher while my siblings played the role of students. Helping and teaching children has always been my passion. I’ve longed to support Somali children with love, guidance, and education, hoping to prepare them for a better future,” says Ms. Hussein.
The mother of two grew up during Somalia’s civil war in the Burtinle district of Puntland’s Nugaal region.
Like many Somalis of her generation, she grew up without access to government programmes that provided free education due to Somalia’s civil war.
Despite this, her parents were keen for her to obtain an education. They provided her with private tuition at nearby madrasas, during which she learned to memorize the Quran, before eventually enrolling her in a school once conditions allowed.
Ms. Hussein graduated from Burtinle Secondary School in 2009 and, a year later, completed a one-year diploma in community development from the Puntland State University of Science and Technology. In 2011, she also obtained a diploma in financial management from the Somali Institute of Management and Business Administration in Galkayo.
The activist and entrepreneur’s educational journey was not over.
In 2015, Ms. Hussein earned a bachelor’s degree in education and community development from Cavendish University in Uganda. That same year, she also completed a post-graduate diploma in leadership from Makerere University, also in Uganda.
Upon her return to Somalia in 2016, she began laying the foundations of the Aayatiin Early Childhood Education, Care and Development Centre – with minimal support.
“Some people in my community initially predicted that I would fail due to my lack of experience in this profession and the challenging nature of managing young children. However, I chose to ignore their negative comments and continued with my strategy,” she says.
Due to financial constraints, Ms. Hussein first set up the in a rented house. Enrolment was slow at first, but the situation gradually changed.
“In our first year of operation, we had 18 pre-schoolers enrolled. However, the number of learners at our school gradually increased. Once the community became more aware of the value of early education, parents started bringing their children to us. The number of students now stands at more than 155, with ages ranging from three to five,” she says.
Four years after opening the centre, Ms. Hussein’s grassroots efforts drew attention beyond her immediate community.
“The Galkayo community generously donated a large plot of land, measuring 2,400 square meters. The community’s generosity in providing us with this land motivated us to seek assistance from the government and UNICEF, who eventually established a school specializing in early childhood education,” recalls Ms. Hussein. “In 2020, Puntland’s Ministry of Education and UNICEF constructed a new building for my school.”
The new building includes an office, three classrooms and four bathrooms, and is has been a significant step forward for the early childhood school.
“Within Puntland, this is the very first nursery school that is supported by the government. Despite the fact that there are other private schools that are comparable, this one would serve as a model for complete institutions that are concerned with early childhood education and where the curriculum is now being finalized,” Puntland’s Deputy Education Minister, Abdirahman Yusuf Dujana, said at the centre’s official opening in 2023.
The main funding for the school comes from the UN Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) Early Childhood Education Programme, which aims to bridge pre-primary and primary student learning expectations. The programme focuses on the critical developmental milestones, skills, and concepts that children achieve during this period of their lives, from social-emotional skills to the foundations of numeracy, literacy and critical thinking.
In addition to its nearly 160 students enrolled, the school employs 13 teachers and administrative staff. Parents sending their children there pay $15, depending on their financial situation; around 40 per cent of all the enrolled students pay no fees.
Ms. Hussein is rightly proud of how far the centre has come. But she is not resting on her laurels – she is advocating locally on the benefits of early childhood education for the benefit of the children and their families, as well as the country overall.
“Somali parents, for various reasons, do not send all their children to school. The primary reason is the financial burden, but many others do not understand the importance of education, and parents are unaware of their children’s whereabouts,” Ms. Hussein says.
In addition to financial obstacles and raising awareness, the education activist is also making efforts to ensure education is available to as many children as possible – including disabled children and those from marginalized communities.
“One of the school’s greatest achievements so far is fostering a climate of equal opportunity for all students, including those from marginalized communities. We have provided a portal for parents who desire their communities to have access to quality education,” Ms. Hussein says.
“Nearly a dozen students with special needs are enrolled in our school, and we are planning to increase the number, but there are significant challenges,” she adds. “We are advocating for an increase in the number and acquisition of the required equipment to meet their special needs. We believe that many disabled children are kept at home because their parents are shy or feel burdened by sending their kids to school.”
Ms. Hussein is grateful for the support received so far, and is hoping for more as the school grows.
“We hope to build a school equipped with all the necessary educational resources, such as a library, playground, feeding centre, dining rooms, clean water, electricity, and other amenities for both elementary and preschool students,” she says.
“Unfortunately, we do not have these resources – I hope that we can continue to work towards making it even better. Additionally, the school is located about three kilometres from the city centre, making transportation particularly challenging for students, especially girls,” she adds.
According to the United Nations, education is the basic building block of every society – it is the single best investment countries can make to build prosperous, healthy and equitable societies. It is not only a right, but a passport to human development that opens doors and expands opportunities and freedoms.
Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to education.’ In addition, the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is centred on ‘Ensuring Inclusive, Equitable, and Quality Education’ for all. Part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone everywhere, and were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda, which sets out a 15-year plan to achieve the SDGs.
In Somalia, UNICEF works closely with the Federal Government’s Ministry of Education, as well as its counterparts at the Federal Member State level, to support education-in-emergencies programming and the integration of displaced communities as part of their education service delivery whenever possible.
“Early childhood education is the foundation of knowledge; if it is properly addressed, other educational systems will thrive. If a child’s first few years of education and discipline are effective, it will have a big positive impact on their entire life,” notes UNICEF Education Officer Said Mohamed Hassan.
“This school serves as a model for early childhood education,” he continues, “and we anticipate that many such schools will be established throughout Somalia. Primary and secondary education will be of good quality if we focus on building these types of institutions.”
They also support the capacity development of education authorities at all levels, as well as school communities and children, to mitigate risks, build resilience to shocks, and respond to and support the recovery of crisis-affected children while addressing underlying chronic vulnerabilities.
Addressing the education needs of children affected by emergencies is one of UNICEF’s priorities. Working with partners, the UN children’s agency has constructed 134 temporary learning spaces in 12 drought-affected districts across Somalia, thanks to funding from the Global Partnership for Education and the United States Agency for International Development. The children are provided with clean, safe drinking water and learning materials and the teachers are given a monthly incentive allowance.
In the meantime, Ms. Hussein’s own academic journey continues – she is now a year into an online Master’s degree in Education and Community Development from Cavendish University Uganda.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM).