I joined SOMGEP in the first phase, nine years ago. My role was to develop a strong aspect of community engagement and social change in the project, especially considering the rural setting of the project target areas. The project context in Somalia is fragile and conflict prone. However, fortunately, our project was being implemented in the northern part of Somalia which was relatively peaceful and accessible, and we were able to visit the community sites and the schools in the villages.
We developed participatory development tools and used them to guide the communities, helping them to prioritise what they needed to expand education opportunities for both boys and girls. They carried out situational analyses of school governance, and options for expanding access, retention, transition, quality of learning and school infrastructure. They also undertook resource mapping of their area, visualising what they would like their schools to look like in a number of years’ time, and finally developing an initial three-year school improvement plan. The project was identified as one of the resources they could draw on. Others were community contribution, government support, diaspora and the business community to support specific priorities outlined in the school improvement plan.
Community engagement: ask what you can do for your community
Community Education Committees (CECs) are an essential component of the Somali education system. They bear a lot of responsibility in the reconstruction, reestablishment and running of schools. The CECs are made up of people who self-organised during the reconstruction phase after the civil war to offer education facilities in their locations. The school facilities are generally rudimentary structures with untrained teachers who bring children together to provide basic education, mainly in rural areas – which is where we were focusing our efforts.
We worked closely with the CECs on school management. We supported them with the introduction of more systemic processes for record keeping, tracking enrolment, and the mobilisation and tracking of children's attendance. We helped to increase their responsibilities and their skills. These covered different aspects and raised questions for them. How did they want to continue governing? How often they would meet? Were they truly inclusive? Were all voices represented, particularly those of women and minorities, in the school management?
We started working with them on assessments of enrolment and attendance, looking at how many children were in school, out of school, or had dropped out. We considered the barriers keeping them out of school and how these might be addressed. We also had to plan for an increased number of students. If we were successful in driving up enrolment, schools would need additional classrooms, water and sanitation facilities, and teachers. Resource mapping was also crucial. The communities had to think about mobilising own resources mainly through school fees, support from the business community and the diaspora. This initial visualisation and planning laid the foundations of the community driven development that took place in those communities over the years.
This community involvement in decision making had wider impacts within the education system. It generated a lot of belief in communities doing things for themselves – not depending on projects or government support that is always not enough. This surprised education officials and the project team who were provided with concrete priority lists instead of communities just asking for support.
Village savings and loans associations: paying it forward
Another successful aspect of this project was the village savings and loans associations (VSLAs) for mothers. Before we introduced the VSLAs, we ran non-formal education classes for mothers in the initial phase of the project and at the start of the second phase. This was a very important group for our project because a lot of households are headed by women. The non-formal education was significant because the mothers were able to gain reading and writing skills– which gave them the basic skills they needed to keep records and effectively run and expand small scale businesses.
When this first phase of numeracy and literacy was completed, the mothers asked us to support them further, particularly with financial skills training and developing joint income generating schemes. This is where the concept of VSLAs came in. I am pleased this was introduced as it has been one of the elements of the programme that has contributed to the sustainability of the project. There are mothers who have started small businesses who set aside social funds to support the most vulnerable girls. They come together and raise money and percentage is put into a social fund that is used to support the most vulnerable members of the community in education and health.
Girls’ Empowerment Forums
Closely linked to the mothers’ groups in the form of VSLAs, is the in-school Girls’ Empowerment Forums (GEFs) established and led by 10 girls on behalf of the entire girls’ population in a school. Through the GEFs, girls have been able to self-organise to keep in touch with each other and identify the girls who had challenges that could lead even to dropouts. They came together to form study groups which were essential during the COVID-19 outbreak. The girls in the GEF, together with Gender Focal points from Ministry of Education and women mentors, created a strong network in the schools that addressed a lot of the challenges that girls face in schools. The success of the GEFs inspired the demand for similar arrangements by boys and the eventual establishment of Boys’ Empowerment Forums (BEFs) to ensure inclusion of boys as well as boys and girls working together to solve common issues affecting them.
Non-formal education: a second chance for out-of-school girls
We offered two different types of non-formal education. Accelerated Basic Education (ABE) was given to children who had never been to school. These are generally children from pastoralist communities that have moved around but who, at the age of around 12 years old, are now settled. Through the ABE classes these children take a shorter time to cover Grades 1 and 2 - in one year – and then Grades 3 and 4 in another year. This helps them catch up on lost time and reach the age-appropriate grade level.
We also developed another non-formal education pathway for girls who dropped out of school usual in Grades 5, 6 and 7. These girls were given a second chance at education. The biggest challenge they faced, leading to their drop out, was the lack of very few female teachers to mentor them or WASH facilities where they could manage their menstrual hygiene and cases of early marriage, especially in rural areas. For these girls, we developed a curriculum with modules on language, maths, financial literacy, leadership and life skills – and we worked hard to re-enrol them into our Alternative Learning Programme (ALP). This was offered for two years and allowed many girls to catch up on lost education. For the older girls, it gave them skills to help them start small businesses and access employment in their villages, as community health workers for example. For many of the young girls they were able to re-join formal school and continue with their education.
Teacher training: a strong legacy
In the first phase, we provided two years in-service and preservice teachers training to increase the number of teachers with training in the project target schools. In the second phase, we had a strong focus on teacher coaching and working closely with the Ministry of Education to provide on-site teacher professional development. This was a very successful component in terms of building capacities for the Minister of Education (in supporting and advising the teachers) as well as the teachers in pedagogical skills, innovation, inclusive education and psychosocial first aid. A lot of support was provided to teachers, especially English and mathematics teachers in pedagogical skills. At the Ministries of Education, we are leaving behind a substantial number of school supervisors and key resource teachers in the schools who have been instrumental in improving the quality of learning.
Inclusivity: supporting ‘the whole child’
In our second phase, we also took the opportunity to focus on children with disabilities. We started by challenging harmful norms – changing the perception of how children with disabilities can learn in mainstream education. We also collected key data and worked with Minister of Education officials to develop their understanding of the concept of inclusive education in addition to tradition special needs education. The Ministries of Education now have inclusive education departments as opposed to special needs education units and their support reach far greater numbers of children.
A positive aspect for Girls’ Education Challenge projects is the ability to capture learning and use this information to adapt your approach. We were able to do this in a very significant way when it came to supporting children with disabilities.
We were fortunate to employ a consultant from Australia to help us develop our inclusive education component and set us off with trainings on inclusive education for policy makers at the Ministry of Education and key resource teachers. The consultant, himself a Somali with a PhD in disability and community rehabilitation, is legally blind and was able to identify with the challenges of the beneficiaries and serve as a role model for possibilities for children with disabilities . He is a remarkable individual who was able to use his own experience of overcoming challenges to convince officials, parents and children (and our staff team!) of what someone with a disability who looks like them could achieve. His training sessions were the most well-attended. He really helped us come up with innovative processes mainstreaming inclusive education carrying out community outreach activities.
He helped us realise that if we wanted to properly identify and provide significant support to children with disabilities in our communities, we would need to take a creative approach and complement our inclusive approach with some practical steps to support the children in school and out of school in their own communities. Children with disabilities needed to be assessed and diagnosed by qualified practitioners before they could be assisted otherwise the risk of doing more harm could not be overruled. However, it was too costly and logistically challenging to take children in remote villages to health facilities that were very far away.
We realised that we would need a team of experts – opticians, optometrists, audiologists and physiotherapists and social workers, all with equipment – to come to the communities. We did not have sufficient funds to develop this ourselves, but we approached a network of hospitals that support communities and we worked with them to create a hugely successful outreach programme.
This was one the most satisfying activities for us as a project team and the education officials we worked with. We carried out outreach activities in over 100 villages with this team of medical practitioners in villages sparsely spread of thousands of square miles. People who needed help came out in big numbers, not only children who were our target group. The medical team, as professionals, had to attend to young and old, in-school and out-of-school without discrimination. They helped people ranging from those who risked going blind in the villages for simple eye ailments that are that are easily treatable to those who needed urgent care and had to be referred to and taken to the hospital for free surgical procedures. More than 1,000 children were processed and supported, and this changed their lives for good, increased their confidence levels and learning ability. They could now participate in education like other children. It was life changing at many levels. A healthy child is a child who can learn.
Overall, I am most proud of being part of a project designed with a number of innovative components, some of which were new to our staff team, communities and government officials. We expanded the limits of innovation and made a big difference especially by building in sustainability through working with the communities from the outset. We built the idea of the project not coming to ‘help you’ but to ‘work with you’. We removed the element of dependency or the expectation that we would arrive with solutions by simply providing supplies such as books and learning materials, or construct classrooms and move on, expecting that will work like magic. Even though this support was provided but the manner in which it was done meant that most of the communities where our project has been working now run their own schools successfully. They now ask, “What else do we need to do?” not, “How shall we survive without support?”
The other aspect I am proud of is adaptation. It is not a common project design that that allows for projects to change approaches and redesign components midstream. For example, we were able to use learning at baseline and from midline on what was working well and not so well and adapt interventions accordingly. This flexibility was an important part of our success. I think that was a very good experience for me personally. And I think that is the way to go for any project that is being designed to be transformative.