Kakuma Refugee Camp – The Struggle to Provide an Education for All

Christine Wallace

Margaret is in Standard 7. She had previously studied in Uganda when her parents fled from South Sudan and had completed Form 2. She had been awarded certificates that proved what a diligent student she was.  Her return to South Sudan meant that she didn't complete secondary school, but she married and had two children. Then the fighting started again. She arrived at Kakuma with no husband and no possessions and, although a long way from home, she found a place where she was able to feed her children and they could attend school. There is even a chance she may be resettled in Canada, the USA or there have been rumours lately of the UK too.

Margaret's children study at Mogadishu Primary school within the camp.  A small sandy campus with an assortment of classrooms built by different aid agencies, each bulging with classes of over 100 students.  The Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP) run by WUSC and the Windle Trust as part of the Girls' Education Challenge gives Margaret's children books to study with and her son, who is in Class 6, enjoys the bright and airy new classroom built by the project.

Margaret studies there too. She is in Standard 7. With no way of proving that she has already studied to Form 2, Margaret has had to start again and pass the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) so she can graduate to secondary school and complete her studies. The KEEP project gives her daughter a solar lamp so that she and her mother can study at night. Although it is tough to study and look after her family, Margaret is very happy to be back at school and happy that her children are also studying.

Some other families are not so happy. They feel that it's unfair that only families with girls get a solar lamp to help them study, to cook by at night and sit around as a family. The project gives lamps to girls (one per family) because whilst boys can return to school at night where there is electric light to study, the girls cannot, as parents feel that it's unsafe for girls to be out in the dark. Instead, girls arrive at school first thing in the morning as the light breaks so that they can complete their assignments. 

Girls also get uniforms, sanitary towels and pants and the opportunity to attend remedial classes on Saturdays, but it is their whole class that benefits from many of the activities of KEEP in the camp: there are new light and airy classrooms; Class registers and mark books so that their teachers are able to track attendance and follow up on absentees; sets of books so that instead of just one textbook for four children, there is now one book between two for each subject. Education Counsellors work with girls who drop out or who can't attend school regularly because of the threat of early marriage, trauma or family circumstance and community mobilisers work with their families. Their teachers also receive training, including a module on girl-friendly teaching.

And it's not just the refugee schools that benefit from the KEEP project. In the past, host communities watched as refugee camp residents received free food, clothing, healthcare and, of course, free education whilst they had to struggle to give their families these basics. The KEEP project works with host community schools as well as camp schools and so, in host schools, there are also families that benefit from solar lamps, uniforms, new classrooms, textbooks, toilets and counselling services.

But the aspect of the KEEP project that everyone wants to know more about is the scholarships. People we talked to attributed a measurable rise in girls' success at the KCPE to the awarding of scholarships for secondary school fees. The low numbers of girls with high enough grades to qualify for the scholarship during the first year of KEEP allowed a second offer of a full three years of education and an arrangement whereby parents would pay little-by-little over the three years to fund the final year, so that their girls could complete the four year cycle of secondary education. There were so many applicants who were eligible that KEEP had to raise the entry requirement.  Girls are now scoring appreciably higher at the KCPE in the hope that they too will be able to earn a scholarship and attend a national school to complete their education. Unfortunately, there are no more scholarships available and the result is much disappointment. There are secondary schools in the camp which are free for refugees to attend but these schools are also overcrowded and constrained to admit those who complete primary school.

A recent UNHCR survey showed that of the 67,000 primary school age children in the camp, only 35,000 are in school and that they are accompanied by some 15,000 over-age learners. Some of these are like Margaret returning to school to resit her examinations and gain vital qualifications. But in schools we visited there were also men of 20, 25, even 30 years old also sitting at the back of even the lower primary classes, catching up with an education missed through over 20 years of civil war.

Whilst these men and women like Margaret are being assisted to complete their education, all acknowledge that this is not the best of learning environments - neither for them nor their much younger classmates.  Adult learners would learn much better in a programme specifically targeted to their needs and teenage girls would not be sitting next to 30 year old men in class, but there are no adult accelerated learning programmes available, unless they pay. 

KEEP is doing much to offer girls a quality education and the chance to change their circumstances. However, it is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of girls who want to learn and by the weight of expectation that it has created amongst families who come from communities some of whom traditionally saw girls as a source of labour in the home until were old enough to marry and bring wealth to the family through a bride price. 

KEEP is starting to prepare for a midline survey which will follow on from a baseline which measured girls' learning and attendance and the results will help the project explore how it can focus scarce resources in the areas where it may have the most impact on these two measures. Together with the results that will come from the same type of surveys carried out in Kakuma's sister camp Dadaab, the project's implementers will be able to contribute valuable learning about successful girls' education in refugee camp situations.

Chris Wallace is Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) Programme Lead. She has been working in international development for the last 30 years for INGOs, UN agencies, DFID and the European Union. She joined the GEC in 2012.

To see a recent video overview of the Girls' Education Challenge's work in Uganda, click here.

Photo Credit: World University Service of Canada

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