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Women at work

Gender and Culture

Starting from childhood, both boys and girls are taught about their respective gender roles. Boys are taught appropriate behavior and attitudes to go with different occasions. Therefore, gender roles are constructed, maintained, justified and perpetuated in a systematic process from the household, place of worship, the workplace, the media and so on.

People are born female or male, but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men. They are taught what the appropriate behavior and attitudes, roles and activities are for them and how they should relate to other people. This learned behavior is what makes up gender identity and determines gender roles. This is why gender roles vary widely from one culture to the other and within the same culture.

Culture is dynamic and socio-economic conditions change over time. Similarly, gender patterns change with time. Sometimes these changes may create a permanent impact and at times a temporary one. At times gender patterns change temporarily and after a crisis the old attitudes may return.

For example, in the Somali context women were never included in the cabinet before the collapse of the central government in 1990. Since 2005, women have this honor and one good example is Puntland state’s Minster of Women Development and Family Affairs (MOWDAFA) Asha Gelle who has been in the cabinet since 2005. She is the only female minister in Puntland. This came as a result of the improved women’s literacy and their participation in almost all aspects of life. Another good example is Farhia Hersi who is a councilor from district to regional level in Mudug region since April 2008.

In Somalia, tasks to be done around the family are divided between male and female. In nomadic societies, women and girls’ tasks are herding and milking cows and goats. Women are also responsible for building the aqal which is a traditional shelter of the herders. It is a collapsible hut made from poles covered by hides, woven fiber mats, or sometimes cloth or tin. It is easy to dismantle and reassemble. Women are also responsible for making cooking utensils, storage boxes, stools and woven mats.

Nomadic women make a decisive contribution to the economy in the form of labour and through the products of goats and sheep, some of which they own. Women also work to collect wood and fetch water, prepare food, and feed the children. Much of this work is heavy. Men in the nomadic society mainly take care of the camels and milk them. Men are always the tribe leaders. Moreover, men and women go to nearby towns to buy what the family needs.
In agricultural, coastal as well as the fishing communities, both men and women have different tasks to attend to.

Women’s absence in workplace

One of the main reasons for women’s absence in the workplace is illiteracy. In Somalia, it was believed that girls do not need education. Their main tasks were doing household chores like fetching water, collecting firewood, cleaning the house and cooking food. Boys have always been sent to schools and Madrasa (a place for learning the Quran).

Families believed that educating girls was a waste of time and money since they marry into another family and eventually leave their own family. Things have changed over the years. After the civil war in 1990, families have been helped by their daughters and families realized that girls need as much education as boys do. This improved girl’s participation in schools and universities though girls are still less in number in schools than boys.

Illiteracy is not the only reason why women/girls are few in the workplace. Some other challenges women/girls faces in the workplace are limited information sharing between women and other male staff. It happens that male bosses do not share enough information with their female staff and that is why women lag behind primarily.

Less capacity building and training for women is also another challenge. Since some of the female staff has not acquired higher education, they need more capacity building to enhance their knowledge which they hardly receive. Less encouragement and consideration of their views is also another challenge women face in workplaces. Sometimes it happens that a female staff member proposes an idea or solution but other male staff and bosses do not take it seriously or do not consider it at all.

There are some companies who do not employ women at all, from director to the cleaners and security guards as it is defined in their policy! Apart from that men hardly accept a woman as their boss. There is a Somali belief that “A woman cannot give orders to a man and he is always superior to her”.

Furthermore, since the country was lawless since 1990 and had no central government which provides developmental facilities for the community, finding jobs is not that easy especially for girls. Sometimes it happens that an elder helps boys/men to find job while ladies mostly lag behind. One more reason for women’s absence in workplaces is the high unemployment rate in the country.

Personal experience

Between 2000 and 2004, when I was in high school I used to lead our class/school every semester and year, academically. I used to work hard and encourage my girlfriends to work hard as well. One of our high school teachers used to encourage boys but it did not discourage me even once. Instead it gave me the courage to show everyone that women can reach where men can. When my girlfriends talked about that teacher and how they hated him I used to tell them “Listen to his encouraging and inspiring words to boys and use them to your own advantage. Turn them into possibilities and never give up”.

Years passed and we graduated high school in 2004. I was lucky to be one of the nine students who scored grade A. Indeed, I am the first lady in my school and throughout Puntland to score that grade. Despite all that hard work and joy there was no hope for scholarships since Center For British Teachers (CFBT) which funded higher education in Puntland state left and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - Regional Programme of Education for Emergencies and Reconstruction (UNESCO-PEER) took over funding higher education.

In December 2004, while I was browsing at a nearby internet café a classmate of mine approached me with a smiling face. He said to me “Congratulations you won”. I was astonished as I did not know what he meant or what was going on. I took a deep breath and asked him “Won what?”! He smiled and said “You have been granted a scholarship”.

I did not know what to say or do. I jumped with happiness. He then added “Hey you know what! Since you were the only lady who scored grade A and you are the highest scoring lady in the whole state as there is no other lady who got grade A, your position is guaranteed”. For hours my ears could not believe the good news they heard. I waited until the following morning and called our school’s headmaster who later confirmed to me that UNESCO will sponsor the highest scoring students.

Few weeks later, highest scoring students in Puntland were called for interviews and to fill up the application forms for the courses available in the scholarship program. When it was my turn I was asked what I planned to become in the future. I told the interviewers “I want to be a telecommunication engineer”. Everybody smiled and asked me why I chose this profession. I told them “it is my passion to become an engineer”. I am determined to show my community that a lady can be who she wants if she works hard.

I went to Kenya in September 2005 and joined Multimedia University College of Kenya to study telecommunication engineering. Going to another country helped me further my studies and make new wonderful friends. I always dreamed of becoming a successful engineer and making my community realize that a woman can do what men can. In late 2007 while I was still there, I enrolled for Saturday classes at Rhemax college in Nairobi to study Community development and social work outside my university. Every Saturday, I used to take a forty minutes drive from the university to reach Rhemax college.

My biggest shock after I returned home to Galkayo in 2009 was that I could not secure a job as an engineer because of my gender. The biggest telecommunication company in the state is a private company owned by a group of businessmen and it is in their policy not to hire women! I worked very hard to reach this point but yet still that was not enough. I thought that things had changed over the years and people realized that women can have successful careers and that they could join any firm related to their profession. But that did not happen.

Other courses that I had done for my pleasure helped me secure a job. I am working with a local research institution called Puntland Development Research Center and it promotes peace building initiatives and reconciliation. I am working in the department of social reconciliation from a gender perspective. I love my present occupation as it gives me more interaction with the community. In each and every armed conflict, women and children are the victims. They are always exposed to the harm and suffering opposing sides cause. Raising awareness about peace building will help the community foster the importance of peace and stability.

Possible solutions

The community has realized the importance of educating both boys and girls and change has already begun. Girls are attending schools across Somalia. Women and girls are also participating in workplaces although they are less in number compared to men. Of course change will take sometime and it will not occur in a day. But it is necessary to create awareness about the importance of women’s education and empowerment. It is also important to encourage all families to send their children to school and not differentiate between boys and girls. Parents have to keep in mind that their daughters need as much education and knowledge as boys.

Over the last decade things have tremendously changed in Somalia. Female literacy has increased. Acceptance of women in the formal employment sector has increased as well. Girls who are educated and employed are able to assist their families more. Women are more involved in income generating activities and being bread winners for families. Though all this has been achieved over the last decade, full participation of women and girls in science, technology and decent work such as joining in the law firms is missing.

The theme of the 2011 International Women’s Day (IWD) was “Equal access to education training, science and technology is the pathway to decent work for women”. On the commemoration of this remarkable day in Galkayo, Puntland’s Minster of women Asha Gelle commented on the importance of educating girls and women. She also revealed Puntland state’s plan for establishing free education for girls in the state in order to provide them with equal opportunities in education like boys. Gelle also mentioned the need for women’s empowerment and allowing them to have equal opportunities in politics, education, economy and development.

Fatima Yusuf, MOWDAFA’s regional director in Galkayo, a town in Puntland commented on the importance of educating girls while she was addressing the gathered community for the commemoration of IWD. Yusuf mentioned that 168 ladies are currently attending universities in Galkayo only, while other thousands attend schools in Mudug region. She also stated that women have joined in the town council throughout Puntland and this shows that women have taken step forward on the democratic path.

Puntland’s Minister of Labor, Youth and Sports Abdiweli Hersi Nur mentioned the importance of women’s active role in the society, their performance and the need to support and assist women in participating social, political and developmental issues in Puntland and Somalia as a whole. While addressing the public on the commemoration of IWD, the minster vowed that his administration will take all necessary steps for allowing women to have a credible role in the politics, economics and society of the region.

There are some schools in Puntland that offer free education for adult women and young girls. Mostly, these schools offer non-formal education. One of these schools is Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development (GECPD) which was established in late 1999. The founder of this school is Hawa Adam, an educator and community activist. She organized resources from the community and international funders to build this center which provides adult and primary education for girls. The center provides literacy and skills for women and also gives awareness on ending gender based violence.

The first progress report of the Millennium Development Goals 2010, produced by the Puntland government and the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) country team indicates that the gross enrollments in primary education in Puntland increased steadily from 12 percent in 1999 to 36 percent in 2005/6 and up 48 percent in 2010.

According to Puntland’s ministry of education statistics in 2010, 37 percent of primary school children are girls in comparison to 63 percent for boys. Overall in Puntland, only 36.1% of pupils in upper primary education are females compared with 41.5% in lower primary education. In secondary education, female pupils increased from 28.2% in 2007-2008 to 28.6% in 2009-2010. Gender disparity rapidly increases in higher grades. Domestic work, early marriage, and economic constraints force many girls to leave school early, leading to higher girl dropout rates.

It would be good if the government took the initiative of establishing free formal education for women and girls throughout the state. This will be a step forward and things will improve definitely. More girls will join educational institutions and once they graduate they will acquire decent jobs. Such women will gain confidence and become role models for younger girls. Further, socio-cultural mindsets may also alter, gradually.

Women are the backbone of every society. Imagine if almost every girl in Somalia had received education from basic to higher level how the country would have turned out to be. Women could have fully participated in the country’s development and sustainability. They could have participated in each and every discussion meeting for the country’s peace and development and had a say in decision making. Women and girls would have acquired their desired careers and things would have been different. Women could have held reconciliation meetings between the parties in conflict. They could have started fostering peace in their homes and families, as it is been said “Charity begins at home”. Great change can be achieved only if the community’s base is been built firmly.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.



My dear Ruun,

I am so glad to read your final assignment. Through this, I have learned about the education and work system in Somalia - I am really sorry that you can't be offered a job as an engineer in your country. It is not that only in Somalia has not offered this kind of job to women - most people in my country think this job should be men who work it. One sentence that is coming to mind is “Listen to his encouraging and inspiring words to boys and use them to your own advantage. Turn them into possibilities and never give up.” It is really inspiring!

Thanks so much for writing this powerful article!




Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Sarvina, Thank you so

Dearest Sarvina,

Thank you so much for taking time to read my final assignment and leaving me such a lovely comment. It is true that women worldwide are not considered or welcomed in the engineering field which is very sad. We always plan and God's plans are there, I might have been a bit upset when I couldnt get a job related to my field BUT this job, the institution am working with really changed my life, it gave me an opportunity to interact many different stakeholders from the community, allowed me to have an influence to them and many more. The only thing is that if women are not allowed to participate in the science and technology field it is going to discourage the young generations and they might never think of becoming one.

In solidarity and affection,

usha kc's picture

Dear Ruun my friend, I have

Dear Ruun my friend, I have been touched by your artical.The reality you mentioned above is reality of many countries.
I am proud of you as you achieved your goal to be an engineer but the situation you could not get job as engineer is really a heart broken.
We women have not given any opportunity ,, if we get any chance we can show our abilities but in the name of culture,social norms/values we women are always supressed/dicouraged and bereaved from state/society.

Education is most power ful to be aware but first of all we most get opportunity to get education.

Here I congratualte you for your final work and it's very great indeed.

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Usha, Thanks alot for

Dearest Usha,

Thanks alot for the inspiring comment and taking the time to read my final assignment. It is true women have less opportunities then men but we should not sit back and wait till a miracle happens, we should always try to do our best, educate our children equally and start the change from the base "home".

Education is the key for everything in this world. We should educate our boys and girls equally and this world will definetly change. In Somalia there is a saying "Aqoon la'aan waa iftiin la'aan" translated to "Without education is been in darknes".


Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture


Dear Ruun Abdi,

Your article was very eye-opening about the realities and challenges that women in Somalia face. Thank you for bringing an on the ground perspective to our community! I am curious to know if you ever considered moving away from your country to be able to pursue your dream of becoming an engineer? And are there laws that outlaw such discrimination in places of work? Or is it legally accepted to ban women from workplaces? What challenges you must face to achieve your dreams in your country--and yet you have already accomplished a lot!

Great work!


"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dear Rachael,Thanks for the

Dear Rachael,

Thanks for the lovely comment. Actually there was a time I thought of moving to neighboring countries to apply a job as an engineer I even sent my resume and cover letter to my friends in Nairobi to forward it, but then I got this job and I thought maybe this is your destiny to bring change to your community. Why I came back to my homeland after graduation was that I felt obliged since I got an opportunity most of the youth at my community didnt get. I might not be working as engineer but I got an opportunity to influence many other lives, to encourage other youth to stand up and decide what they want to be not what someone else wants them to become and always encourage them not to miss their chances of becoming what they want as for me. There is no law that discriminates men and women at workplaces, also there is no law that outlaws any private company/agency to hire whom they want. But since this company I am talking about is a private company, and been private they have got the right to employ who they want, that is the reason why they don’t hire women at all.


Julie Tomlin's picture


I enjoyed reading such a thorough and detailed piece about the challenges women and girls face in Somalia. I was most of all inspired by your response as a young girl to not be deterred by the lack of encouragement and to inspire others to do the same.
That kind of strength and wisdom is remarkable and it's hardly surprising that you made an A. I wish you well in all that you do and hope that this past five months has been useful and inspirational to you.



Ruun Abdi's picture

Thank you so much for the

Thank you so much for the lovely inspiring comment. I worked hard but my parents always stood by me, they always encouraged me to be bold and not to wait someone else to help me, they were my teachers ever since I came to this world. I still remember how they used to teach me and my siblings even when there was chaos and civil war. I am grateful for that and I wish if every child has got such parents.

As for the past six months, it has been a remarkable months, and am so grateful for that. Thanks to God who made this possible and to all pulsewire team, my vof fellow correspondents, my mentor and midwife and all my Worldpulse friends who always inspired and encouraged me. Now that I am a graduate I should pass the knowledge I gained to the rest of my community and friends all over the world.


Pat's picture


Loved your story, Ruun. I think your energy could change the world!


Ruun Abdi's picture

Thank you so much dear. :)

Thank you so much dear. :)

Farona's picture

Sister ! I am so glad you

Sister !

I am so glad you choose this topic for your piece ! We have a similar situation in my country, Engineers and lawyers can study but they can't practice! That's why girls prefer to go for IT courses as opposed to pure engineering. I wouldn't choose an alternative to my passion not matter what ! and I see that passion inside you ;- )

Do you have plans to study in my country at KAUST the new, state of the art university ? you can apply there - many students study here with amazing academic and practical support. Even the area where the new university is built is more open to women participation than any other place here.

Ruun Abdi's picture

Dearest Farona, Thanks for

Dearest Farona,
Thanks for taking time to read my post and leaving such a wonderful comment. Its true that many parts of this world women can study engineering or law... but then they cant work per their careers! Hope things will change and everyone can study and get jobs related to their careers no matter who they are or where they are.

KAUST sounds great. What courses do they offer? Please give me more information about it and i will see.


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