A group of JRS-sponsored secondary school students engage in a discussion during a recent workshop organized by JRS in Nairobi, Kenya (JRS)

I realized that being born a woman is not a problem. For the first time I realized that God has a plan for my life, as a woman. I just have to live up to my dreams”. This is a reflection the 16-year-old Grace* from South Sudan shared with her peers during a recent workshop for refugee students hosted by JRS in Nairobi, Kenya. The aim of the workshop was to bring together the students to share and exchange views on the challenges they face as refugee youths and attempt to come up with solutions themselves. With regard to the unique obstacles girls have to overcome to access education, one of the main insights to emerge from the workshop was that any solution has to begin with girls themselves, that change rests upon their ability to envision a different future for themselves. Fatouma, from Somalia, meant exactly this when she said, “I feel encouraged to dream about how to build a better future for women”.

Refugee girls’ dreams about a better future are often frustrated by numerous obstacles that prevent them from accessing education. Despite the right to education being recognized as a human right by a number of international conventions, this fundamental right remains elusive for most refugee children. According to a policy brief published by JRS USA last week, refugee girls are especially underrepresented in education. Globally, there are 7.4 million school-age refugee children, of which half are female.  Yet girls are 2.5 more likely to be out of school than boys.

To address this imbalance, JRS applies an affirmative action approach when recruiting for its education programs. In Nairobi, Kenya, JRS currently provide supports to 66 refugee students enrolled in secondary and post-secondary education.   Post-secondary education includes formal university tracks but also various professional training such as nursing, computer and accounting. Of 54 student enrolled in secondary school, 35 are girls while only 4 of the 12 students in post-secondary are girls.The reason there are fewer girls in post-secondary has to do with their performance in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam which determines admission to public universities. For reasons ranging from having to combine their studies with household chores to pressures from their families to get married, refugee girls who manage to secure admission to university are still few and far between.

JRS’s preferential option for refuge girls is an important first step in addressing gender imbalance. However, this alone is not sufficient to address the problem. Prevailing social and cultural norms and beliefs about gender within the communities where these girls come from are among the most important factors that hold them back. Often parents and society hold negative views about the education of women or see little value in it.

Catherine from South Sudan was 13 when she decided to run away from home. Her father wanted to marry her to a much older man, raising fears that this would definitively kill any chances she had of getting an education. So with the help of some of her cousins, she managed to cross the border into Kenya and settled in Kakuma refugee camp. There, she enrolled in primary school and, upon completion, moved to Nairobi to continue her studies in secondary school. Now at 23, she determined to continue her studies until she achieves her dreams of becoming a lawyer. “I am achieving what I always desired, to be in school”, she says.  

Although parents often privilege the education of boys due to limited resources, this is not always the case. Hope, 17 years from South Sudan, admitted that her family did not lack the means to send her to school. “In my family, there is no money for girls’ education, only my brothers have the right to go to school”, she says. She decided to approach JRS because she had no other choice. “Without this scholarship, I have no hope. I will be given into marriage just as it happened to my mother and my elder sisters. But I don’t want to get married yet. I really want to go to school. I want to become a lawyer.”    

Addressing the problem of gender imbalance in refugee education calls for a multipronged approach including targeted resource mobilization and gender sensitive planning. However, as the aforementioned policy brief clearly shows, meaningful change will take place only when concerted efforts are deployed to tackle the mentalities and social norms that stand in the way of girls’ education. Until communities begin to value equally the education of girls and boys, girls’ dreams of better life will remain unfulfilled through to the next generation.

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals

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