Girls need an education, too

By Rikke Hovn Poulsen

Child marriage, sexual exploitation and harmful social norms: in a refugee settlement, girls are especially vulnerable. To attract girls to school and prevent them from dropping out, the Education for Life project pays special attention to their needs.

“You have breasts – you should not be in school. You should be married instead!”

Ala and Nakiro are used to these comments by now. They are classmates in the Education for Life project in Palabek Refugee Settlement. But many people in their community do not believe that girls like Ala and Nakiro should be in school at all.

“They give me bad advice,” says 15-year-old Ala. “They say I should not be living alone – and that I need a boy to take care of me. They try to force me to get married. But I say no.”

Both girls lost their parents in the war in South Sudan. They survived hardships and fled to neighboring Uganda with their younger siblings. Now they are both the head of their household, fighting to raise their siblings and go to school at the same time. It is tough, and a lot of responsibility. But the two friends are determined to stay in school.

“School is important,” Ala explains. “It helps you to pay attention, and to communicate with other people. The teachers give me good advice, so that I can become a good person, and I learn how to protect myself. When I go to school, I am happy.”

18 year old Nakiro agrees that going to school really improves her life. It enables her to deal with some of the things she has been through during the last two years.

“When I first came to the settlement, I just stayed at home, and I had a lot of bad thoughts in my head all the time,” Nakiro explains. “But now I do something better, and I am able to say bye-bye to all those thoughts. I get new ideas, and it makes me feel good. I know I will get a good future because of this school.”

Multiple obstacles for girls

Every single child in Palabek Refugee Settlement has been through a lot. They are all survivors of war, hunger and violent attacks. Many are orphans. And many have lost years of schooling due to the conflict in their home country, South Sudan. This holds back young men and women alike from pursuing their dreams for the future. Without an education, they are unable to build a better life for themselves. Education for Life provides a unique opportunity for teenagers to go back to school and get a primary education in only four years.

“Especially the young girls are struggling under these conditions,” says Gloria Auma from the Forum for African Women Educationalist (FAWEU) in Uganda.

As part of the Education for Life project, Gloria works to sensitize teachers, parents and communities to the fact that girls should be given equal opportunities when it comes to education.

“There is immense pressure on many young girls to get married early – and if they do, most of them drop out of school,” Gloria explains. “Many are child mothers, which is a big barrier in itself. And then there is the emotional abuse: girls are told they are not as good as boys, sometimes by their teachers or their own parents. In the end, this affects their performance and attendance, and the girls shy away completely.”

On top of that, very practical issues make it difficult for girls to attend school. They have to balance domestic chores with schoolwork. The distance to school poses a threat – girls risk being abused or attacked when walking to and from school. And then there is menstruation.

“Whenever I talk to the girls, they mention that menstruation is a big issue for them,” says Gloria. “They miss several days of school every month, because they can’t afford sanitary pads, and there are no changing rooms in the schools.”

Together with her colleagues in the Education for Life project, Gloria tries to tackle these obstacles one by one – from providing teacher training to establishing girls clubs in schools and child protection committees in the communities to teaching girls how to make and use reusable sanitary pads.

“And also, we try to motivate the girls by bringing role models to talk to them”, Gloria adds. “For example, we’d bring a female doctor to the schools, so that the girls can see that it is actually possible for a woman to become something like that. All these efforts combined are already creating results – I see many girls whose attitude has changed.”

Female speaker of parliament

Mary Aol works as a teacher at Awich Primary School – one of the schools taking part in the Education for Life project. Every day, she experiences how girls have to fight to get an education.

“Many girls around here are treated as a means of getting money,” says Mary. “They are undermined by their community, who always prioritize sending the boys to school first. When girls start developing breasts, they are usually told not to go to school anymore, because then ‘you are a mother’. They always face these kinds of problems. And eventually, many girls are forced into early marriage.”

Mary and her teacher colleagues at the school offer psychological and social support to the female students, guiding and counseling them to overcome the different problems they face.

“They need to be aware that at least they have rights, and there are people who can back them up,” Mary explains.

The teachers pay frequent visits to the students’ homes and communities to get into dialogue with parents and community members.

“We always use the example that Uganda’s speaker of parliament is a woman, just second after the president. When the parents acquire this knowledge, many of them start to be more sensitive to the girls’ needs,” Mary explains.

“It is very interesting to work with these girls. It is a big investment in their future. Because if they learn, they can cope very well.”

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Oxfam in Uganda and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union