For millions of refugee girls, education is out of reach. Despite substantial increases in access to girls’ education around the world over the last two decades, refugee girls remain left behind. Irish Jesuit Missions supports projects run by Jesuit Refugee Service wordwide which tackle and overcome the problems faced by refugee girls as they strive to access education.
In countries affected by conflict, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys. Girls make up half of the 7.4 million school-age refugees, yet face disproportionate challenges in accessing and sustaining their education. Among all refugee children, only 61 percent are enrolled in primary school and 23 percent are enrolled in secondary school. Notably, refugee girls are only half as likely to be enrolled in secondary school as boys.
Limited access to education further perpetuates the challenges and vulnerabilities that displaced girls face. The isolation of being out of school can harm girls who’ve experienced trauma during their displacement as they may be more vulnerable to trafficking or early marriage. Without school, refugee girls may find it more difficult to heal, build hope, and find safety.
The benefits of investing in education for all girls – including refugees and those who are forcibly displaced – transcends the individual. If refugee girls have access to an education, their families and communities are more likely to improve their social and economic position. The further girls progress with their schooling, the more they develop leadership skills, become income generators, and build self-reliance.3 These are personal qualities that will help their communities flourish as they strive to adapt to their host countries or as they prepare to return to their home countries.
THE JRS COMMITMENT TO GIRLS' EDUCATION
While the number of girls and boys enrolled in JRS’s education programs is equal in the early primary years, girls drop out at higher rates than boys as students grow older. JRS believes that in order to enhance refugee girls’ access to education, particularly as they transition to secondary education, it is necessary to develop a holistic understanding of the barriers that prevent girls from achieving an education. JRS is committed to providing quality education to refugees and displaced people around the world. This commitment includes a five-year effort, launched in 2015, called the Global Education Initiative (GEI). The GEI is an ambitious international campaign to enable JRS to open the doors of our education programs to 250,000 refugee students by 2020. The initiative focuses on key areas, including increasing access to secondary education, with a focus on girls. Through the GEI, JRS is supporting girls as they progress through primary school and transition to secondary education. Some of these programs include scholarships targeting girls, facilities to ensure adequate menstrual health management, and tailored programs to support the empowerment of girls and address gender barriers.
LACK OF APPROPRIATE STRUCTURES & MATERIALS
A lack of access to adequate school structures is a challenge across the refugee landscape. In particular, there are a limited number of secondary schools in rural areas where 40 percent of refugees find themselves. Resources to pay for transportation to urban centers, where many secondary schools can be found, is costprohibitive for most refugees.
To address long distances required to travel to school, and lack of transportation options, offering dormitories for students, including girls, makes a significant difference in school retention rates. By living on school grounds, the need to balance domestic duties at home and school obligations for girls is minimized. The dormitories also provide a safe and secure place for girls to study and thrive.
In addition, girls often do not have proper accommodations for their particular needs to succeed in school. A lack of adequate, gendersegregated sanitation facilities often poses a challenge for girls, especially as they begin to menstruate. Without access to appropriate facilities, menstruating girls are often left at home or unable to fully participate in school activities. Although little research has been conducted in refugee settings, some studies in developing countries have shown that access to gender-segregated sanitation facilities increased girls’ school attendance by almost four percent.
Lack of access to sanitary supplies also limits girls’ participation in school. Where girls don’t have access or resources to purchase sanitary materials, they must be made available through school facilities, as JRS does in many of its supported schools through the provision of monthly sanitary kits. In addition, any new infrastructure projects must include building latrines for girls, and ideally incinerators, to properly dispose of sanitary napkins.
Basamat Alnoor Jakolo Aldabi teaches school in the Kaya Refugee Camp in Maban County, South Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey / Misean Cara)
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL NORMS KEEP GIRLS AT HOME
In some refugee communities, social and cultural beliefs regarding gender roles and education pose challenges to girls’ access to education. This is often the case when parents believe that boys have greater future earning potential and, with limited resources, choose to invest in their son’s education rather than their daughter’s. Some religious or traditional values also discourage girls’ education and emphasize a girl’s role in the home providing domestic support. These social and cultural pressures contribute to an estimated one in seven girls in developing countries married before the age of 15.
Uganda, Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country, is home to over 1 million refugees from South Sudan. JRS operates education programming in northern Uganda where dropout rates among girls in both primary and secondary school are significant. Among UNHCR-supported schools, only 67 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school and 11 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary school.5 Reasons for dropping out include families’ inability or unwillingness to pay for school fees, domestic duties at home, and early marriage or pregnancy.
JRS has had success in addressing these challenges in Uganda and elsewhere by engaging with communities and building the capacity of teachers, administrators, parents, and students to allow for greater communication and collaboration. This is accomplished by organizing community sensitization programs. These programs encourage school leaders to visit refugee settlements, recruit students, and talk with families and community leaders about the importance of sending their children to school – both boys and girls.
In addition, JRS encourages schools to identify a senior female teacher who can offer counseling services and check-in frequently with female students. This outreach allows girls to raise any concerns they might have without feeling selfconscious about discussing sensitive issues. It also helps to create an environment that fosters open dialogue and an opportunity for teachers and administrators to help address any challenges girls may be facing in completing their studies.
JRS and Irish Jesuit Missions will continue to support and advocate for girls' education in refugee communities, to empower girls and women in the most vulnerable and marginalised parts of the world.