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Wherever you live, teachers and education can make a big difference

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By Laetitia Lemaistre, UNHCR Refugee Education Specialist

When my high school English teacher was passionate about a passage of a novel we were discussing, he would jump on a chair, joyfully flailing his arms. Edith Wharton would have approved enormously. His energy was contagious and instilled a deep appreciation for the material we were studying. Years later, reflecting on my teacher, and the other educators I was fortunate to have, I understand how those years were critical for me as I navigated through my education, engaging with teachers, comprehending how the world would open itself if I continued to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

I secretly loved school when it wasn’t cool to admit it to your peers. In fact, I loved school so much I continued to study education, and am now a refugee education specialist for UNHCR. Refugee education seeks to ensure that the most disenfranchised and vulnerable children in emergency and protracted refugee contexts have access to school, placing them in safe classrooms with qualified teachers who guide them through their education. But it’s sadly not the case for the vast majority of refugee children, particularly refugee girls, regardless of the level of ambition and intellectual curiosity they might demonstrate.

Students look out of a classroom at the Ofonze Primary School in Bidibidi refugee settlement, Yumbe District, Northern Region, Uganda. (Photo credit: David Azia/UNHCR)

3.7 million refugee children globally are out of school, with refugee children five times more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee peers. Fewer than one in two refugee children enroll in primary school, and only one in four enroll in secondary school. Figures are even more abysmal at the tertiary level, with only 1% of refugees enrolled in higher education.

The situation for refugee girls is especially challenging, as they encounter myriad of challenges to accessing, and completing, even a primary education. For every ten refugee boys in primary school, there are fewer than eight refugee girls. And as you might imagine, the figure at the secondary school level is worse, with fewer than seven refugee girls for every ten boys. Girls in forced displacement face protection risks such as child and forced marriage, early pregnancy, and are more at risk of sexual and gender-based violence.

A student in the Educate A Child (EAC) programme in Uganda. (Photo credit: Jiro Ose/UNHCR)

A student in the Educate A Child (EAC) programme in Uganda. (Photo credit: Jiro Ose/UNHCR)

While the reality for the majority of refugee learners globally remains difficult, I want to leave you with a message of optimism and hope. Despite these barriers, female students continue to defy the odds and demonstrate their commitment to, and capability in, achieving their dreams.

For example, girls in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya perform remarkably well in national examinations in spite of the limited spaces and resources in primary and secondary schools. Refugee mother associations in Chad develop grassroots networks that work with individual refugee families and their daughters to ensure all girls are supported throughout the academic year, targeting homes where girls are more at risk of dropping out.

Five-years-old Saba is an Afghan refugee, living in Kebabian refugee village, in the north-western Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. (Photo credit: Qaisar Khan Afridi/UNHCR)

Five-years-old Saba is an Afghan refugee, living in Kebabian refugee village, in the north-western Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. (Photo credit: Qaisar Khan Afridi/UNHCR)

And twenty-five years ago in Pakistan’s Punjab province, an Afghan refugee teacher and the 2015 recipient of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award, Ms. Aqeela Asifi, established a makeshift school for only 20 Afghan refugee girls. Today, more than 1,000 Afghan refugee girls have received a certified education through Ms. Asifi’s school.

Teacher Bako Zulaika teaches a class at the Ofonze Primary School in Bidibidi refugee settlement, Yumbe District, Northern Region, Uganda. (Photo credit: David Azia/UNHCR)

Teacher Bako Zulaika teaches a class at the Ofonze Primary School in Bidibidi refugee settlement, Yumbe District, Northern Region, Uganda. (Photo credit: David Azia/UNHCR)

We know that investing in girls’ education demonstrates strong positive impacts on the economic and social development of communities and societies. We know that better-educated girls grow to be better-prepared mothers, and result in healthier better-educated children. Imagine the possibilities if all refugee girls had their Ms. Asifi, a figure I liken to my high school teacher, who recognized, encouraged and cultivated girls’ intellectual curiosities and abilities.

Laetitia Lemaistre is an Education Specialist with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees with a background in international education policy and planning, and humanitarian and conflict contexts.

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