This year, the African Union and the Diaspora African forum are honouring the first woman minister for education in Kenya for her long and outstanding work in girls’ education and governance.
The annual African Women of Excellence Awards (AWEA) recognises and honours women of Africa and the diaspora who have contributed to the struggle for political, social and economic independence.
This year’s theme pays tribute to the first iconic recipient of the AWEA Committee’s Living Legends Award Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Receiving the honour during a celebration in Sept. 29 to 30 will be Ambassador Amina Mohamed, an international civil servant and the current Kenyan minister for education, science, technology and innovation.
Previously, Mohamed served as the minister for foreign affairs and international trade, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and permanent secretary in the ministry of justice, national cohesion and constitutional affairs where she played a key role in creating the 2010 Constitution in Kenya.
Most recently, she has worked tirelessly in the arenas of women’s empowerment and girls’ education in Kenya and around the world, especially as co-chair of the Commonwealth High Level Platform for Girls’ Education which works to put 130 million out of school girls back in the classroom.
IPS spoke to Ambassador Mohamed about her inspirations, career, and ongoing challenges in education. Excerpts of the interview follow:
Inter Press Service (IPS): What does it mean for you to be receiving the African Woman of Excellence award? How does this award advance the key issues you work on?
Amina Mohamed (AM): The AWEA is a great honour which I accept with humility and gratitude; and which I share with my family, colleagues and friends who have encouraged me all along.
The award is recognition that I have made a demonstrable contribution towards the progress of my country and in enriching the lives of our people. It is a very important award that will no doubt inspire other women in the country, and especially young girls, to develop confidence in themselves and in their ability to make positive and tangible impact in their communities and nations.
The award reinforces my commitment to bequeath the youth a legacy greater than my heritage. I feel re-energised and challenged to keep doing more.
IPS: You have a long and distinguished career as a diplomat and international civil servant. What drove you where you are today?
AM: I have always believed that the script of your life is yours to write.
I grew up in a society where existing norms defined a lesser role and position for women—a notion I was uncomfortable with from an early age having been brought up by a strong mother. I therefore made a conscious and deliberate decision to cultivate my own success in the knowledge that great careers are not hereditary; they must be seeded, grown and nurtured.
My humble upbringing reinforced my commitment to serve others and to emphasise with different situations in the knowledge that every challenge has a solution and everyone has the capacity to live a dignified life and to make a contribution.
At every stage in my professional journey, I have learned to embrace those virtues that define successful careers particularly those moral and civic values that are needed to not only make us better people but to also make our country a better place in which to live for all.
IPS: Would you say that the millions of girls who don’t go to school is a global crisis? What have been some of the challenges you have faced or seen working towards girls’ access to education, and what has Kenya done differently to address this issue?
AM: It certainly is a global crisis. The Global Education Monitoring Report, 2018 indicates that only 66 percent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, 45 percent in lower secondary and only 25 percent in upper secondary. Other statistics are more frightening—UNESCO [U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] estimates that 130 million girls aged between six and 17 are out of school. An additional five million girls of primary-school age will never enter a classroom.
What this means is that millions of girls are being denied a fair and just chance in life. Without education, girls are exposed to serious insecurities and dangers, including early marriage, sexual exploitation, diseases, poverty and servitude. This crisis goes beyond the unfulfilled lives of girls who miss out on education and involves serious loss of economic benefits and opportunities.
Among the critical challenges that impede girls’ education are poverty, conflict and violence, early marriages, harmful traditional practices, long distances to school, and inadequate menstrual hygiene.
In Kenya, we have been implementing wide ranging measures to address these challenges including readmission of girls who get pregnant while in school; outlawing FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] and introducing rescue centres for girls running away from FGM or early marriages; provision of sanitary towels to girls in public primary schools; and introduction of free primary and day secondary education, which has ensured that no child, boy or girl, misses out on education needlessly.
As a global crisis, concerted global action is required to ensure all girls access education. Multi-sectoral approaches and the sharing of best practices in a collaborative effort involving governments, civil society organisations, multilateral organisations and the private sector holds the key to addressing this crisis.
IPS: Conflict has proliferated in many parts of the world, making education even more inaccessible for many children. How should the international community address the issue of education for refugee or displaced children?
AM: Emergencies and protracted conflicts ruin the education systems of affected countries. Girls fail to acquire an education because of violence, which includes kidnapping, maiming as well as sexual abuse, exploitation and bullying. Statistics indicate that less than five percent of girls in rural-conflict settings in Africa complete secondary education.
Humanitarian aid for education is acknowledged as a way forward in ensuring provision of education for refugee and displaced children.
Despite this recognition, humanitarian aid for education remains very low—catering, by 2015 estimates, for only two percent of requirements. To overcome this challenge, a possible way forward is for humanitarian agencies and development actors to come together and set up a specialised funding stream that meets the other 98 percent of the requirements for education in conflict situations.
IPS: Recently the ministry of education launched a policy on disaster management in response to the impacts of heavy rains on schools and the education sector. How important is it to have such a policy, especially as extreme weather and disasters become more prevalent? Is this a move that other countries should consider?
AM: We have experienced many disasters in Kenya, including droughts, floods, fires, and even conflicts. These have routinely disrupted learning and damaged education infrastructure in affected areas.
While efforts to address climate change gets underway, it is clear now that extreme weather events are getting more frequent and intense. There is every indication, therefore, that we will experience severe flooding, landslides and droughts into the future.
We must therefore prepare for these eventualities so that we do not experience the same disruptions and losses in the education sector that we have undergone in the past. This underscores the need for comprehensive disaster risk reduction and management policies. The launch of this policy was in fact long overdue.
In the modern world, preparedness or risk reduction is a necessity not a choice. Countries that fail to plan will bear the heaviest burden as the effects of climate change intensify.
IPS: What is your message to Kenyans in light of this award?
AM: The well-being of our country, now and in the future, lies in our hands. Building a country is a collective responsibility and exercise in which each one of us has a role to play and a contribution to make. In making our contribution, in whatever capacity, we must embrace the virtues of hard work, careful reflection, patriotism, honesty, accountability, justice and fairness and the pursuit of public good. I believe that my adherence to these virtues have inspired this award.
In so doing, I recall the words of the late Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Mathai that: “Every one of us can make a contribution. And quite often we are looking for the big things and forget that, wherever we are, we can make a contribution. Sometimes I tell myself, I may only be planting a tree here, but just imagine what’s happening if there are billions of people out there doing something. Just imagine the power of what we can do.”
By Tharanga Yakupitiyage at IPS Inter Press Service News Agency