Girls in class boost boys’ grades in a Syrian school
Although the crisis in Syria has disappeared from headlines in recent years, the need for help remains extensive. A boys’ school supported by Finn Church Aid opened its doors to girls in the countryside of Hama. The new set-up was a challenge to the pupils, teachers, and families alike, but the efforts have been rewarded.
THE JOYFUL NOISE is deafening. In the countryside of Hama in western Syria, around 30 girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 14 have packed into a tiny classroom.
The situation might seem ordinary, but in today’s Syria, it’s a rare one. The war has dragged on for almost 12 years, and during its course, girls and boys have gone to separate schools. School directors assure that this hasn’t always been the case; before the war, girls and boys sat in the same classes. During the war, rules and practices became stricter.
Together with the EU humanitarian aid, Finn Church Aid supports a former boy’s school that has taken on girls in 2022. FCA support refurbished the school and provided teacher training. 380 girls took part in remedial lessons organised in the summer, and now there are approximately two dozen girls in the school of 400 students.
The school staff say that the reforms has filled the classrooms with cheerful energy and positive competition. A teacher and two students share their experiences of life in wartime and how the school experiment that brought girls and boys in the same classrooms has broken the ice in the community.
“Now I even have boys as friends”
“My family didn’t flee; we stayed in this region throughout the conflict. In 2018–2019, we spent a year sheltering below our house, for about 20 hours a day. I was 11 years old, and I was afraid when I heard helicopters, missiles, or shells. One of them hit our house, and my brother blacked out. We had no water or electricity. My father had a small store, and we emptied it in a year.
My girls’ school was closed that year. Once my father tried to take me to a school in another district, but that didn’t work out. Everyone was scared, and there weren’t any teachers. We dropped education for that year.
I think my situation is better now than it was before. The atmosphere in the mixed school is happy. Previously, when I was attending an all-girls school, it was difficult for me to talk to boys. Now I even have boys as friends. My school friends Ahmad, Muhammad, Ali, and others are part of our group of friends. I used to just be friends with the boys in my family.
Initially my family was concerned that the boys in school would harm me. However, this experience has strengthened the relationship I have with my family. They trust me, and they think that their daughter can go to a boys’ school and look after herself.
What do I think about girls’ education? Education is my right. Studying, working, and travelling are women’s rights. We have exactly the same rights as men. Our place isn’t just at home. I hope to become a doctor or an engineer.” – Student Foton, 14
“I suppose they are strong women in a way”
“My family and I left our home, when the battles in our region were really intense. We fled and took nothing with us. Throughout the entire conflict I was really scared because of the shells and missiles. I still have anxiety thinking someone might attack us.
Finn Church Aid organised revision lessons in our school. The sounds of the war have been playing in my head for a long time, but the activities gave me something else to think about and helped me forget about the horrors.
This is my school, and it used to be just us boys here. We were all somehow similar. Now we boys want to prove that we’re smarter than girls. We compete for good grades in front of the teachers. We try to be polite and respectful towards the girls. Things can often get tough among the boys, but now there are girls in the classroom, too.
During this experiment, we boys have gained more self-confidence. I’m used to thinking that girls are shy. When they came to our school, I noticed that girls are confident. I suppose they are strong women in a way.
I don’t mind continuing like this at all, studying together with girls. I have to admit that it hasn’t been very easy. I sometimes feel a little shy and think that it would be better if they went back to their own school. But would I really want that? No, no, no! They boost study motivation for us boys. – Student Turki, 13
“Now girls and boys are classmates, friends, and colleagues”
“A lot has changed in Syria during the war. In many respects, rules have been forgotten, and sometimes groups of people don’t respect each other. During the war years, we have lost plenty of opportunities and been left behind in global development.
We have to fix our ways of thinking in terms of gender issues as well, because we must be able to accept each other. It’s important to start driving the change here at school. Why? As a teacher I want to think that all of my students will move on to university studies. At university, women and men study together. That will be difficult, if these young people have never done anything together before.
It’s great to have girls in this school. Unlike before, now we have activities and teaching that bring boys and girls together. I’ve noticed that after the initial awkwardness they’ve started talking to each other. They treat each other normally: sit and learn next to each other, without having to constantly interpret the situation. Now they are classmates, friends, and colleagues to each other. The ice has somehow been broken.
Girls tend to do better in school than boys but, bringing girls in the former all boys’ school has showed boys are now improving their grades. FCA support refurbished the school in Hama, western part of Syria, and provided teacher training. 380 girls took part in remedial lessons organised in the summer, and now there are approximately two dozen girls in the school of 400 students. Photo: Erik Nyström / FCA
As an English teacher I must say that the reform has had its share of challenges. The girls who joined the school hadn’t really studied English before, and I’ve had to revise everything from the beginning.
Ultimately, this situation has been really useful. Based on my experience, girls tend to do better in school than boys. A new situation, in which the girls and boys take the same classes, creates positive competition between the students. The boys have improved their grades and overall performance.
Education plays a significant role when we plan a future for Syria. Children spend more time in school than at home, and a teacher is like an extra parent to a child. Everything starts at school: we can impact the child’s ways of thinking, help them develop their skills, and thus also have an impact on the direction Syria takes and how reconstruction proceeds.” – Teacher Najah Kasem
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Translation: Anne Salomäki Photos: Erik Nyström
The tenth UN International Day of the Girl Child will be celebrated on 11 October
The United Nations International Day of the Girl Child calls attention to the fact that girls’ access to education also helps families, communities and society. In Somalia, Finn Church Aid works to promote girls’ access to education and their inclusion in peace work.
HAWA, 16, does not take education for granted. In Somalia, studying is something many young people Hawa’s age can only dream of. Hawa’s dream is to learn English properly.
“That way I could talk to all kinds of people,” she explains to Finn Church Aid (FCA) at her school, Mama Gedia.
For children and young people in poor and fragile Somalia, there’s very little room for dreaming. Decades of conflict have left the country practically devoid of infrastructure. To make matters worse, the country is gripped by a devastating and protracted drought that threatens food security.
In September, the World Food Programme warned of a risk of famine in the region. The war in Ukraine is disrupting grain imports, inflation has more than doubled the price of food in some places, and local conflicts and terrorist attacks weaken the security situation. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes due to violence, or lost their livelihoods as a result of the drought. All of this contributes to a cycle of poverty.
Without external assistance, Hawa would not be able to go to school as her parents can’t afford school fees. With FCA’s support, they can pay Hawa’s school fees, learning materials or school uniforms.
Hawa calls her teachers her role models. She appreciates their encouragement and the high quality of teaching provided.
“I’m full of energy and I want to use this opportunity to get an education,” she says. “When I grow up, I want to work for a humanitarian organisation.”
THE TENTH UN International Day of the Girl Child will be celebrated on 11 October. While attention over the past ten years has been called to the importance of offering girls more opportunities, much work remains to be done. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have further increased the burden on girls and threaten to reverse progress already made.
But, as the UN points out, with adversity comes resourcefulness, creativity, tenacity, and resilience. On its theme day website, the UN points out that hundreds of millions of girls have shown time and time again that given the skills and the opportunities, they can be the changemakers driving progress in their communities.
Finn Church Aid works to support girls’ access to education by distributing school uniforms and supplies to those in the most vulnerable position. FCA also supports parents’ livelihoods, organises awareness campaigns, builds schools and classrooms, and supplies furniture and teaching materials.
“In Somalia, the education sector is facing enormous challenges, starting with teachers’ competence and the lack of a sufficient and accessible school network”, says Ikali Karvinen, FCA’s Country Director in Somalia. “School buildings are in poor condition, groups are too big, and teachers lack proper training.”
While overcrowded classes are a problem in many schools, dropping out of school is another big issue, Karvinen says. In most cases, dropping out is associated with poverty. From an early age, children have to help their families to earn a living.
IN DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES, girls are in a particularly vulnerable position for various reasons. According to Karvinen, there are cultural and traditional as well as structural reasons for this. Girls’ education is not considered as important as boys’, because girls are expected to stay at home and help parents with household chores and with earning a living.
Many families refuse to send girls to school because the journey to school is unsafe. FCA is contributing to making schools safer. In Hawa’s school, Mama Gedia, FCA created a channel that pupils can use to report threatening situations to teachers.
For girls, some of the reasons for dropping out can be very simple: the lack of hygiene facilities or single-sex toilets can be a significant issue for teenage girls. To reduce dropout rates among girls, it is important to provide relevant health information, organise proper sanitary facilities and make sanitary pads available.
In Karvinen’s opinion, it’s also crucial to raise community awareness of girls’ rights to education and the positive effects it has on families, communities and the entire country.
“Generation after generation of dropouts and a growing number of people with no education will generate an intellectual deficit. This will make the country increasingly dependent on external aid provided by international organisations, both on a shorter and longer horizon.”
LUL MOHAMED NUR, headteacher at Mama Gedia school is one of the 16-year-old Hawa’s role models. According the school principle, there are now more girls than boys in the school.
“This is the result of our tireless campaigning to make families understand why sending girls to school is important. It seems that the community has heard and accepted our message.”
Abdullahi Moallin Ali, chairman of the community’s education committee, agrees that campaigning significantly contributed to the change in attitudes. More and more families decided to send their children to school after they found out that they don’t have to pay school fees or pay for school uniforms or learning materials.
Children themselves can also feel nervous about going to school. 10-year-old Suleqo thinks it is important that all children regardless of gender have access to education, and she wants all parents to give their children equal opportunities. At first this little albino girl was reluctant to go to school herself.
“At first she resisted, but now she’s used to going to school and she likes it,” her mother Hamaro Mohamed Nur explains.
Because of her albinism, Suleqo’s vision is impaired. Her teacher placed her near the blackboard so that she can see what teachers write.
“Suleqo became much more interested in school after she received her school uniform and learning materials. Now she has plenty of energy and she really likes her teachers,” Suleqo’s mother says.
ACUTE CRISES tend to divert attention from long-term goals. In Somalia, famine threatens almost seven million people, or half of the country’s population.
Karvinen emphasises that while the help of the international community is vital in an acute crisis, it is equally important not to lose sight of the long-term objectives.
Finn Church Aid’s work focuses on peacebuilding; this includes supporting the national reconciliation process and inclusive local government. Other key focus areas include the promotion of education and livelihoods. In Somaliland, FCA has supported two vocational schools with the incorporation of career counselling and entrepreneurship education into the curriculum. With support from FCA, students have been encouraged to pursue entrepreneurial activities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, FCA built learning facilities in hard-to-reach areas and provided training to teachers to allow children to stay in school. FCA helped build 10 new temporary schools and 16 renovated classrooms in the cities of Baidoa, Hudur and Elbarde. Almost half of the students in these schools are girls.
Peace work does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of something bigger, Karvinen underlines. FCA works to promote the inclusion of young people and women in peacebuilding by organising events that give marginalised groups an opportunity to be heard. FCA also supports the BAYWAN network of women’s organisations in southwest Somalia.
THERE IS ALWAYS hope, even in the face of famine, violence and insecurity. FCA’s Karvinen underlines the importance and impact of small changes and improvements. A simple way to improve safety in schools is to build a fence around the area and to have access control in place.
“School is the safest place for many children. Being at school protects children from being exploited as child labour or ending up in the hands of terrorist organisations.”
According to Karvinen, children who go to school enjoy learning new things, which increases their satisfaction and creates optimism about the future. Education makes children and young people better equipped to make healthier choices in life. The repercussions are significant: as people become healthier and more educated, they will be able to accept responsibility for services, security and respect for human rights in their country.
Education can also empower girls to put an end to harmful traditional practices. During the COVID-19 lockdown, there were reports of an increase in female genital mutilation.
“Educated girls and women are instrumental in the fight against this human rights violation,” Karvinen notes.
Providing educational opportunities for girls is of paramount importance.
“An educated woman wants her children to receive an education. This is the virtuous cycle that FCA wants to reinforce,” Karvinen concludes.
Your donation allows Finn Church Aid to e.g.:
distribute school supplies and school uniforms to children
provide income opportunities for parents so that children can go to school
organise awareness campaigns designed to help parents understand how important education is for their children
build schools and classrooms, supply blackboards, desks, textbooks and teaching materials for schools
In Somalia, FCA has trained more than 700 women leaders in leadership and other skills.
OVER THREE DECADES OF CONFLICT has left Somalia in poverty, most of its infrastructure destroyed, and ongoing political instability and armed conflict exacerbate the effects of climate shocks. Women have borne the brunt of these hardships.
FCA has been supporting state-building and the establishment of inclusive local governance through district council formation in line with the Wadajir National Framework and National Reconciliation Framework. Together with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, we worked closely with the Somali State and Federal Government, local authorities, communities, and civil society partners.
In 2021, we released a new publication on lessons learned and best practices for supporting inclusive local governance, focusing on promoting the participation of women, youth, and marginalised groups to support future state-building efforts in Somalia. As decision-making is largely in the hands of clans, which men dominate, decision-making processes exclude women, youth and marginalised groups. Since 2016, our support has resulted in the formation of five new district councils, with sixteen women elected as district council members. Furthermore, FCA has trained more than 700 women leaders in leadership and other skills.
In 2021, we lobbied for women’s meaningful participation in federal and district elections. In the Barawe district of Southwest state, a new council was formed, comprising twenty men and seven women, including the first female Deputy Mayor. Twenty youth (fourteen men and six women) were also elected. In partnership with the Network, Somali Peace Line and the Ministry of Women, Human Rights and Development, we promoted women’s participation in federal elections in Southwest and Hirshabelle State, advocating for a 30% quota.
Social media, radio and television raised awareness about civic rights and opportunities to participate in political processes and communication activities that FCA supported. That contributed to a 98 per cent awareness rate of district council formation, which helped increase the participation of women and other marginalised groups. Inclusive local governance in Somalia is time-consuming and labour-intensive work, but the incentive is clear – the dividend is peace.