UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Monday night presented the Nansen Refugee Award to Somali humanitarian, educator and women’s rights advocate Hawa Aden Mohamed.
She was unable to attend in person for health reasons.
The 63-year-old former refugee, widely known as “Mama” Hawa, has been honoured for her extraordinary service – under extremely difficult conditions – on behalf of refugees and the internally displaced, mainly women and girls but also including boys.
Above all she is being recognized for her work, as founder and director of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development in Somalia’s Puntland region, in helping to empower thousands of displaced Somali women and girls, many of whom are victims of rape.
The centre provides secondary education as well as life skills training so that the students can become financially independent, shape their own futures and play a more active role in Somali society. Underlying all her actions is Mama Hawa’s belief that education is paramount, especially when it comes to girls.
The award was accepted by Mama Hawa’s sister, Shukri Aden Mohamed. In a special video message, Mama Hawa said the award had come as a surprise. She said she was grateful that for “the small thing that you are doing, others are seeing you and recognizing you. That recognition is very good.”
Guterres said he had met Mama Hawa during a visit to Galkayo two year ago and had understood how important her work was. “She really is a grassroots woman, she reaches all sectors, all clans of the community. She is the reason why we can be hopeful for the future of Somalia.”
Monday’s event also included an address by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and a video tribute to Mama Hawa as well as performances from UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador and classical singer Barbara Hendricks and up and coming Swiss musician Bastian Baker. The ceremony was led by British TV journalist Isabelle Kumar and broadcast by Euronews.
Gbowee, who was herself a refugee in Ghana more than two decades ago, said it was an honour to be able to join in the tribute to Mama Hawa, who she described as “a selfless, competent and dedicated fighter for peace, human rights and social justice.”
Mama Hawa was born in the central Somalia town of Baidoa in 1949 and allowed to go to school by her father – a decision that changed her life and ultimately those of thousands of Somali girls. She earned two university degrees. “Without education, you do not exist much – physically yes, but mentally and emotionally, you do not exist,” the Nansen Refugee Award winner recently told UNHCR in Galkayo.
Once a refugee in Kenya and Canada, Mama Hawa returned to Somalia in 1995 and eventually, after another period of exile, discovered her calling as co-founder of the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD).
The centre offers free schooling to girls as well as literacy and awareness classes for women, tailoring courses, vocational training for boys, and food and other relief items to the displaced. Since it opened in 1999, the number of girls receiving education in the Mudug district has risen from 7 per cent to 40 per cent, the highest in the country.
The Galkayo centre encourages women and girls to see themselves as full members of society who possess fundamental human rights. And it openly addresses the complex issues of female genital mutilation, puberty, early marriage, rape and HIV/AIDS. In recent years GECPD has begun working with boys, too. It offers carpentry and welding classes as well as a recreational space to help keep young boys off the streets.
Meanwhile, Gbowee, Hendricks and Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Elisabeth Rasmusson, took part in a panel discussion earlier Monday co-organized by UNHCR at the University of Geneva on the topic: “Women and the reconstruction of Somalia: From Turmoil to Hope.”
Established in 1954 when the winner was Eleanor Roosevelt, the Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to one or more individuals or an organization for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced. The award is named after the late Fridtjof Nansen, a diplomat, scientist, polar explorer and humanitarian who went on to serve as the first High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations and won the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize.
The award consists of a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 monetary prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to support a project of the laureate’s choice to benefit displaced people.
More than two decades of conflict have torn Somali society apart, forcing more than 2 million people to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in the country or beyond Somalia’s borders.
Monday’s ceremony in Geneva’s Bâtiment des Forces Motrices was supported by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the government of Norway, the Swiss Federal Council, the State Council of the Republic and canton of Geneva, the Administrative Council of the City of Geneva and the IKEA Foundation.