Awo Mukhtar: “Through this program I met with many people in this field. I have also become bold enough to found my own solar company which will operate in Somaliland. My expertise has immensely advanced.”
By Grace Tran
“Perseverance and self-confidence.”
That’s how Awo Mukhtar, 23, says she’s accomplished what she has as a female electrical engineer in Somaliland.
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Awo was the first person in her family to study engineering. “My family asked if I was sure about pursuing this degree and the five years it takes to complete it,” she says. “They supported my decision after they saw my determination.” While there are now more Somali women pursuing a higher education than ever before, the number of women in the Somali energy sector remains limited. Globally, this is still a male-dominated sector, and distrust and skepticism about women’s capabilities continue to serve as barriers to female engineers’ abilities to grow in the energy space.
There are few female engineering students in Somaliland, and many who choose to study engineering are unable to find meaningful work in the energy sector after graduation. At the University of Hargeisa, Awo says only 5–10 percent of her classmates were women.
The USAID/Somalia GEEL Program’s Women in Energy effort supports female Somali engineering graduates to get practical experience, professional trainings, and exposure to the forums and stakeholders that will facilitate their employment in their field.
After she graduated, Awo realized she had technical training but no practical experience or connections. In a culture where women were typically excluded from the engineering community, getting her foot in the door was going to be difficult.
In 2017, Awo became involved with the Women in Energy (WIE) initiative, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through the Somalia Growth, Employment, Enterprise and Livelihoods (GEEL) program. The effort is working to increase the role of women in Somaliland’s energy sector by offering female engineering students opportunities to attend professional trainings and workshops, as well as connect them with companies in the sector. Through the WIE initiative, female electrical engineering students were able to further develop their communication skills, build professional networks, and gain hands-on experience to pursue and obtain a career in energy.
Building on the popularity and momentum of this initiative, in 2018 GEEL worked with electricity service providers to place female engineering students in a 1-month practical internship program. Awo became a member of the inaugural class of WIE interns.
With the WIE initiative and internship, “We learned how to do electrical generation,” Awo says. “We learned about the distributions and meters and also how to properly protect yourself in order to perform the work safely. We followed the power grids and learned how to set up electrical poles. I knew these things only theoretically [beforehand], but I managed to finally see them in real life.”
Along with her fellow interns, Awo is forging a path as an electrical engineer, but societal norms around women in the workplace persist. She explains why there continue to be few women working in the energy sector.
“This field is relatively new to our society and therefore girls and young women don’t usually find (female) role models whose footsteps they can follow. Our people also believe that women can’t learn and practice engineering, and many women have second thoughts before joining the field.”
Through her own hard work and the involvement with the WIE internship program, Awo has been able to gain practical experience as an electrical engineer, which will serve her well in her future career. The greatest benefit of the WIE internship program, however, has been the confidence and skills that she has gained.
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To ensure the sustainability of the WIE program, GEEL has conducted a formal handover of the program curriculum and guidelines to the Somaliland Energy Association, which is an umbrella organization of Somaliland energy service providers. The association will continue working with local universities and its member organizations to host internships for female engineering students.
To other aspiring female engineers, Awo offers this advice:
“Never get disappointed. The country is making good progress step by step. And our people are starting to understand that women can also learn and practice engineering. So you must be tenacious.”