WMC Women Under Siege

Attitudes shifting to include girls' education in African refugee settlements

If 19-year-old Rose Alek* could have one wish granted, it would be to complete her education. Following her parents’ death, Alek relocated from her home in South Sudan at the age of 6 with her younger brother, settling in Uganda’s Kyangwali refugee settlement with the help of her aunt. At first, her aunt helped pay for the kids’ primary tuition, but her charity soon ended because, Alek says, “We’re not her kids.”

She withdrew from school for a year to earn tuition money, fetching water for neighbors. Her motivation during those trying times, Alek recalls, was her dream of becoming a doctor.

“I had too much love for the school,” says Alek. “[When I was younger], I saw educated people in South Sudan going to work, and I wanted to be like them.”

Children play outside one of the schools in the Kyangwali refugee settlement. (Shayera Dark)

She ultimately paid her and her brother’s school fees with her earnings, and completed primary school. Unfortunately, that achievement was short-lived, as a larger hurdle lay ahead: paying for secondary school.

The trials Alek faces are not unusual among refugees, particularly for young girls. There are more than 22.5 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, of which an estimated 1.3 million reside in Uganda. The East African nation hosts more refugees than any other country on the continent, and has been praised for its progressive policy toward them. Refugees residing in Uganda’s designated settlement areas are allocated land for building and farming, can move within the country with relative ease, and can open businesses and access public services like health care and education.

But access to school for refugee children is a different story—and girls are affected the most. Of the 530,000 school-age refugee girls in Uganda, only about a quarter are enrolled, according to the UNHCR Uganda Communications Associate Tukundane Yonna. The situation is no different in the country’s Kyangwali refugee settlement, where just half of the 8,000 school-age girls are in school, according to Yonna. Reasons for the low enrollment numbers include poverty, child marriage, and pregnancy. Some adults simply don’t believe that girls should be educated, forcing them to withdraw from schools. What’s more, the settlement has just 10 primary and one secondary school, insufficient to cater to a youth population of 22,000, according to the Kyangwali Camp Commandant Jolly Kebirungi. This deficit has resulted in some girls and boys having to enroll in schools located in Hoima, the nearest town, or dropping out entirely, often due to the inability to pay school fees.

Having personally experienced some of these challenges as a refugee, 27-year-old Joseph Munyambanza founded a primary school called COBURWAS with three of his friends in 2007. The acronym stands for Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan, an homage to the diverse origins of its cofounders and pupils. COBURWAS is funded by several organizations, including the Global Fund for Children, Global Citizen, and the African Initiative for Rural Development.

As a kid, Munyambanza remembers being taught by underqualified Congolese teachers with limited English proficiency. By the time he was in grade six, his class of 150 had drastically dwindled to 17 pupils, of which only one was a girl. He speculated that many left due to a lack of interest, child marriage, and hunger. “Some days I went to school hungry, but I was determined to get an education,” says the Congolese father of two.

This awareness of the challenges faced by refugees is woven into COBURWAS’ foundation. Its students get free breakfast and lunch, qualified teachers with knowledge of the Ugandan curriculum are recruited, and pupils in secondary schools outside the settlement are housed in COBURWAS-run hostels located in Hoima, where they’re also fed. Food comes from COBURWAS-run farms, and donations from parents. Also, scholarships are available to those unable to pay tuition.

Such was the case for Alek, who was offered a scholarship by a concerned neighbor and a COBURWAS cofounder a year after graduating from primary school. Today, COBURWAS is responsible for her tuition, books, and accommodation, and, with two more years of secondary school left, Alek aspires to become a medical doctor. Asked whether she plans to return to South Sudan, she shakes her head. “I want to stay here in Uganda.”

Munyambanza says his school pays particular attention to its female population, and that there is an evolving attitude toward education among adults in the settlement.

“For a long time, many parents in Kyangwali didn’t believe in girls’ education,” he says. “But through discussions, they now understand the importance of educating their daughters.”

To ensure girls remain in school, feminine hygiene products are provided, and cases of child marriage have been reported to the police, resulting in some arrests. So far, their approach seems to be working: COBURWAS recorded 100 percent retention among its students last year, according to Munyambanza. The organization also runs Girls of Transformation, a program that encourages upper primary and secondary female students to remain in school by highlighting the benefits of an education.

While COBURWAS has offered substantial support to refugee children, the organization can’t meet all the educational needs of this growing population. Grace Kimpaye, a friend of Alek, lives with her grandparents in Kyangwali and attends a secondary school in Hoima. But unlike Alek, Kimpaye has had to buy her own books, which she’s managed to afford by working on neighbors’ farms.

Kimpaye, who came to the settlement from the Democratic Republic of Congo, wants to be a wildlife journalist, which she says is a financially practical alternative to studying medicine.

“I heard people say if you want to be a doctor, you must pay 2 million Ugandan shillings (US$560),” she says. “I can’t manage all of that money. [But] I can be a medical doctor if I get a scholarship.

Like Alek, Kimpaye is adamant about not returning to DRC, from which she fled two years ago. “The [rebels] killed my father and my mother,” the 19-year old said in an even tone. “I hate that country.” She added that her memories of Congo consist of shootings and people hiding to escape them, an ordeal she described with a stoic detachment.

For now, Kimpaye is concerned about finding a job to pay for her schoolbooks. Fetching water is not an option due to her chronic chest pains, and with agriculture season dependent on the weather, her job on the farm is unreliable.   

Meanwhile, 18-year old Alice Ingabilre, another secondary student studying in Hoima, has similar concerns. Each school term costs 300,000 Ugandan shillings, and though it is partly covered by COBURWAS, her Rwandan farmer parents struggle to make up the remainder. They have also had to withdraw her younger brother from secondary school because it became impossible to pay for both of them. With two years left before graduation, Ingabilre isn’t sure whether her parents can afford to fund her education.

She says she doesn’t know her parents are going to be able to support her dreams of becoming a doctor, “but that’s my vision.”

Ingabilre says her parents, who fled Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, have no desire to return home. But with few Rwandans on the settlement and limited job prospects, Ingabilre confessed she feels isolated and doesn’t see a future for herself in Kyangwali. “I need to go to Rwanda,” she says, despite never having visited.

“But when I talk about going there, [my parents] say: ‘Search for your transport [fare]. If you get, you go,’” she adds with a laugh.

*Alek asked that her identity be protected for her privacy

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