The 2012 Nansen refugee award has been awarded to Somalia’s Hawa Aden Mohamed for her tireless work in building training centers for displaced young women and girls in Somalia.
In granting recognition to Hawa Mohamed, the UN refugee agency, said she had taken extraordinary steps to empower thousands of displaced Somali women and girls, including many who had fled war, persecution or famine.
Through these centers she has provided secondary education as well as life skills training so that the beneficiaries can become financially independent, shape their own futures and play a more active role in the Somali society.
Young women and girls are among the most vulnerable members of Somali society and in many cases are grappling with the trauma of marginalization, abuse and sexual violence, including rape.
Hawa Aden Mohamed was a refugee herself once. She fled Somalia in 1991 shortly after the civil war broke out and sought asylum in Canada. But she never wanted to lead the life of a refugee and so she returned home and founded her first training center in Kismayo in southern Somalia.
Four years later, she founded her second and better known educational center in the town of Galkayo northeastern Somalia. It's called the Education Centre for Peace and Development GECPD.
The centers cater for the education of refugees and victims of violence. This year alone a total of 800 people will benefit from the different training schemes they offer. All are aimed at empowering young girls with life skills.
Dozens of young girls attend these centers and learn sewing in addition to the normal curriculum. The representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Somalia, Bruno Geddo has visited the centers and hailed Hawa Aden Mohamed's work.
Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, also from the UNHCR, pays tribute to her selflessness.
"Actually, she led a very comfortable life as a refugee in Canada," Fleming said, But Hawa Mohamed realized there would be no one to help in the reconstruction of her country and decided to go back to Somalia.
Now "Mama Hawa" in Somalia
Hawa Aden Mohamed, who is now 63 years old, has no children of her own. But she has helped raise many children from her neighborhood and in the region. As a sign of respect she is now referred to as "Mama Hawa.".
Education for them is the basic requirement for the young women who want to be able to live a more fulfilling life.
The centers in Kismayo and Galkayo train mostly on women and girls. However, displaced young boys are also taught to be carpenters and welders. Mama Hawa wants to prevent the boys from joining criminal or armed gangs in Somalia.
Many of the children have lost loved ones and their families cannot fend for them adequately. Melissa Fleming from the UNHCR says Hawa Mohamed's centers are important starting points for the kids. "They are fed, can get shelter and work there, so they are safe," she says.
They can stay as long as they want and the most important thing is that they can regain their dignity and confidence to lead an independent life, Fleming adds. .
The fight against female genital mutilation (FGM)
According to the UN refugee agency, numerous young girls and women have been the victims of genital mutilation in Somalia.
Mama Hawa is also involved in the campaign against female genital mutilation after her own sister succumbed to an infection and died after undergoing a FMG operation went horribly wrong.
According to Jessica Neuwirth, director of Donor Direct Action, an NGO in the United States, an estimated 95 percent of Somali women have been subject to female gential mulitation. She has been working together with Hawa Aden Mohamed for ten years to end the practice.
"She is a committed and visionary activist who has a vision of a world free of FGM where girls can have access to education and live without violent attacks,"says Neuwirth.
Since the founding of her projects, Mama Hawa has helped more than 215,000 people to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives.
Somalia hails Hawa's work
The award was accepted on October 1, by Hawa's sister on her behalf, because Hawa herself is still recuperating from an operation in a Kenyan hospital and was therefore unable travel to Geneva, Switzerland and receive the award in person.
Her commitment to the rights of girls and women initially triggered resistance in her home country, but Mama Hawa is now accepted by the Somali society. And many Somalis are happy with her work.
The speaker of the Somali parliament announced that Mama Hawa will be honored officially at the next session of parliament.
"Mama Hawa embodies the best of Somalia," said UNHCR's representative in Somalia, Bruno Geddo, ”and we are all very proud of her."
The Nansen Refugee Award is the most prestigious award in the field of humanitarian aid and is worth $100,000 (77,495 Euros). It was named after Fridtjof Nansen, who was the United Nations' first High Commissioner for Refugees.