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School meals are at the heart of the World Food Programme’s fight against hunger. Last year, the world’s largest humanitarian agency provided school meals or take-home rations to 24.7 million children around the world. In Somalia, WFP’s school meals are helping to bring children back to class, and this is especially important for girls, who have often been expected to stay at home and help with chores.
Hargeisa - "Aqoon la aq'aan waa iftiin la aane" ("To be without knowledge is to be without light") is a popular Somali proverb. But for many young people in this culturally rich country, years of conflict and cyclical droughts have placed the light of learning out of reach.
Today, WFP is investing in the future of Somali children by providing meals to around 106,000 children in 473 primary schools in the parts of the country to which the humanitarian agency has access.
Six out of 10 Somali children do not go to school - one of the worst enrollment rates in the world. However, as relative peace takes hold in some parts of the country, and with WFP providing school meals, this is starting to change.
At the Abdirahman Godyare primary school, in the Woqooyi Galbeed district around 100 kilometers outside of Hargeisa in Somaliland, a group of young girls wearing bright-as-jewels headscarves put their books aside as they sit in the shade to enjoy their afternoon meal.
The presence of these girls is significant.
"WFP started supporting the school in 2007. It provides the students with two meals a day. Before the meals were introduced, we only had 100 female students. Now 385 students, out of a total of 780, are girls," said headmaster Mohammed Osman Ismail.
Take-home rations are key
In Somalia, parents often choose to keep girls at home to help with domestic chores. To combat this tendency, which might see girls lose out on an education and the daily meals provided at school, WFP provides take-home family rations to girls. These give parents an incentive to send their daughters to school.
In Hargeisa, the take-home rations consist of 3.6 kg of cooking oil for each girl. To qualify for these rations, girls must be in school for at least 80 percent of the school month.
"Before, if a family had three daughters, perhaps only one would be sent to school. Now they send all their daughters to school because each daughter will bring home cooking oil," said Ismail.
Schools that are supported by WFP offer free education, but families still sometimes struggle to find the money to pay for uniforms and books.
For this reason, many students start primary school at an advanced age. Sarah Ismail, 17, is among these late starters, but she has big ambitions. She is studying English and Arabic and wants to become a university professor.
Her parents are supportive.
"WFP meals help me to focus when I am in the classroom. It also makes life easier for my parents, knowing that I get two meals at school. They don't have to worry about providing food for my sisters and me because they know we get good food here. The cooking oil is also very helpful to us, especially during (the holy month of) Ramadan when oil and food is more expensive," she said.
Olivier Nkakadulu, head of the WFP office in Somaliland, said take-home rations boosted enrollment among girls because parents saw the immediate benefit of sending their daughters to school.
"Education is the base of the family and the nation, and is therefore a long-term priority for WFP. The education of girls is particularly important as it gives them the opportunity for a better future and enables them to make informed choices about their lives," he said.
If the security situation permits, WFP aims to expand its school meals programmes to Mogadishu at the start of the next school term in December. WFP plans to provide meals to 5,000 children in the capital.
WFP is also a key supporter of the "Go-2-School" campaign that aims to enroll 1 million children in school. The campaign was launched in September by the Somali government, with support from UNICEF, WFP, the UN cultural agency UNESCO and the International Labour Organization (ILO).