Somali humanitarian "Mama" Hawa wins 2012 Nansen Refugee Award

News Stories, 18 September 2012

© UNHCR/F.Juez
Nansen Refugee Award winner Mama Hawa addresses a group of internally displaced women in the Halabokhad settlement, Galkayo.

GENEVA, September 18 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency announced on Tuesday that this year's Nansen Refugee Award goes to humanitarian Hawa Aden Mohamed for her exceptional, tireless and inspiring work for Somalia's refugee and displaced girls and women.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in Geneva that the 63-year-old former Somali refugee, who heads the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD) in Puntland, north-eastern Somalia, had "carried out her important work under incredibly difficult and challenging circumstances in a country battered by decades of violence, conflict and human rights abuses,"

In 1954, UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award to promote global interest in refugees and to keep alive the spirit of Fridtjof Nansen, the first high commissioner for refugees in the League of Nations period. To date, the Nansen Refugee Award Committee has awarded 68 Nansen Medals to individuals, groups or organizations.

This year's laureate is a former refugee who chose to return to her war-torn homeland in 1995, where she launched an ambitious education programme to assist those uprooted by the nation's persistent conflict and recurring droughts. In particular, her visionary work has transformed the lives of thousands of displaced women and girls, who 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.

"When Hawa Aden Mohamed rescues a displaced girl, a life is turned around," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "Today, we are saluting her for her work to save, nurture and educate hundreds of women and girls, many [of them] victims of the worst kind of violence."

More than two decades of conflict have ripped Somali society apart, forcing over 2 million Somalis to seek safety and shelter either elsewhere inside the country or beyond Somalia's borders. This was exacerbated by last year's drought and ensuing famine, which uprooted an additional half million people.

Hawa Aden Mohamed, who has come to be known in Galkayo as "Mama" Hawa, has created spaces where displaced women and girls, victims of all sorts of abuse and violence, can find safety, opportunity and be protected and sheltered. Her work stems from a belief that education lies at the root of everything, especially for girls.

"I think not having education is a kind of disease," said Mama Hawa. "Without education, you are unaware of so many things . . . Without education you do not exist much physically yes, but mentally and emotionally, you do not exist."

The centre she founded and continues to manage provides secondary education as well as vocational training, so that women and girls can make a living on their own, and themselves influence their future and their own role in Somali society. "It's time for the culture to change," she said. "We need to keep the good and let go of the bad. And the good is to empower the girl."

Mama Hawa is also a vocal campaigner for women's rights, particularly opposing female genital mutilation (FGM). Her sister died from an infection after she was circumcised at about the age of seven. In addition to advocacy, Mama Hawa's centre provides counselling for circumcised women and girls and survivors of gender-based violence. Every year, some 180 women benefit from these programmes and many lives are saved.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie congratulated the 2012 winner; "Hawa Aden Mohamed is a woman of courage. She has devoted her life to advancing the education and well-being of Somali displaced women and girls, providing them with the skills, knowledge and vision they need to create a better future for their families and their country."

She said Mama Hawa had demonstrated the strength that refugees bring to society and added that "Madam Hawa has proven that, even in the most difficult circumstances, every child can and should have a chance to learn. She has changed the lives of so many, giving them the opportunity to become teachers and leaders the very ones who will help to rebuild Somalia one day. Madam Hawa's courage and commitment serve as a beacon to all humanitarians striving to assist and protect refugees worldwide."

The GECPD also provides vocational training in carpentry and welding to help keep displaced boys off the streets and prevent them from falling into the clutches of criminal or armed groups in Somalia.

On learning that she was to receive this year's Nansen Refugee Award, Mama Hawa said, "I am humbled by the committee's decision to bestow upon me this great honour. Yet I do not consider it recognition of my personal efforts alone, but also my colleagues at GECPD, the international community that supports our work, and the community. lt is for this reason that I am dedicating the same award to them."

Since its establishment in 1999, the GECPD with Mama Hawa at its helm has assisted more than 215,000 people displaced, victims and survivors of violence to recover and heal and restart their lives. Somalia remains one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. In addition to the millions of refugees displaced in surrounding countries, more than 1.3 million Somalis are internally displaced. This means that a third of Somalia's estimated 7.5 million population is forcibly displaced.




Somalia's Hawa Aden Mohamed wins Nansen Refugee Award

Hawa Aden Mohamed, a former refugee whose visionary work has transformed the lives of thousands of displaced Somali women and girls, is the winner of the 2012 Nansen Refugee Award. Widely known as "Mama" Hawa, she is the founder and director of an ambitious education programme in Galkayo, Somalia, that helps women and girls secure their rights, develop vital skills and play a more active role in society. View a slideshow of Mama Hawa's work at the Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development, which offers literacy courses and vocational training as well as food and other forms of humanitarian relief to internally displaced people [IDP].

Somalia's Hawa Aden Mohamed wins Nansen Refugee Award

2012 Nansen artists line-up

Singer, songwriter, campaigner, activist, and UNAIDS International Goodwill Ambassador Annie Lennox, OBE will perform at this year's United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award being held in Geneva on October 1st and broadcast internationally.

The line-up, which also includes classical singer and UNHCR Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, Swiss star Bastian Baker and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Madam Leymah Gbowee, will pay tribute to this year's Nansen Refugee Award laureate.

TV presenter Isabelle Kumar will be the Master of Ceremonies on 1st October. The winner of this year's Nansen Refugee Award will be announced in advance of the award ceremony at 10:30 am on September 18 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

2012 Nansen artists line-up

UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

The Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award

Given to individuals or organizations for outstanding service in the cause of refugees.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

More than 400 people attended the annual presentation in Geneva in October 1, 2012 of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. This year's inspirational winner from Somalia, Hawa Aden Mohamed, was unable to attend for health reasons, but she sent a video message. In the former refugee's absence, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the award and Nansen medal to her sister, Shukri Aden Mohamed.

The 63-year-old humanitarian, educator and women's rights advocate, widely known as "Mama" Hawa, was 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 has been 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.

The packed 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.

Nansen Refugee Award Presentation Ceremony

Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
2015 Nansen Award winner Aqeela AsifiPlay video

2015 Nansen Award winner Aqeela Asifi

One of the humanitarian world's most prestigious awards has been given to an Afghan refugee teacher, Aqeela Asifi. Twenty-three years after arriving in Pakistan, her original tent-school is a now permanent building. Asifi's dedication has helped guide more than 1,000 girl students through to the eighth grade - with each student receiving a nationally-endorsed certificate confirming their achievement. Asifi's efforts encouraged more schools to open in the village and now another 1,500 young people (900 girls, 650 boys) are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village today.
2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video StatementPlay video

2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video Statement

The second annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons is being marked on 30 July 2015. To mark this special day, the Principals of eight of the world's key organizations working to tackle this crime have come together to issue a special statement. Together, these eight heads of organizations are urging more to be done to help the millions of women, men and children who fall victim to one of today's most brutal crimes, and to join forces to improve trafficked persons' access to remedies that respond to their individual needs. This video includes statements from the following members of the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT): ILO, INTERPOL, IOM, OHCHR, UN Women, UNHCR, UNICRI and UNODC.