I left South Sudan in 1989. The families of some of those whom I met on my visit last month started their journey out of South Sudan around then too. But, unlike me, they have since travelled far and seen much that has etched unreadable lines alongside the tribal scarification on their faces. Many of them are living in Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana Kenya - for the second time - after the resurgence of fighting in Southern Sudan.
Some of their daughters and granddaughters are studying in schools in the camp supported by WUSC and the Windle Trust as part of the Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP), funded by the UK government’s Girls’ Education Challenge. Although the classes are crowded, they enjoy free school uniforms, textbooks, solar lamps to do their homework by, and their teachers are trained to ensure that they can participate in the lesson just as much as the boys, even though they may be shy or overshadowed by over-age classmates.
Fatuma and her friends told us of their dreams of becoming a doctor, an engineer, a politician, an NGO worker and a nurse. Another group of friends explained how they would go to university in America or Canada - they hadn't considered the UK. In 1989, most girls of their ages from South Sudan would have been married at 14, bringing a large bride price of cows to the family to enable their brothers to marry well and bring wealth to the family. Many of the girls are still expected to marry early, but the KEEP project is working closely with community leaders to change the way girls are seen and to recognise the value of an educated daughter. There have been many success stories where girls who have been under threat of early marriage have been rescued by the project and given a place at boarding school. The community mobilisers have negotiated with their parents so that they can be protected and supported in the boarding school until they complete their education.
Others have not been able to avoid marriage, but the KEEP project workers have arranged for them to return to school after marriage. Often pregnant, they are also helped to attend school up to delivery and then return to education after the birth. This is difficult: even though they can return to school they need to find someone to take care of their child while they are at lessons.
One of the girls that I spoke with, who had plans to become a doctor, explained how difficult it was to attend the special girls' remedial classes on Saturday mornings because she was alone with no parent and a small brother to take care of. She had come to Kakuma from Dadaab, the other large camp in the north east of Kenya. She had fled there from Somalia and then again from there, as fighting had broken out in the camp itself. Another couldn't attend the classes regularly because there was no one on Saturdays to take care of her baby.
But despite all of these challenges, the girls are very positive. They want to learn, to gain a free scholarship to a secondary school and then to a university which they see as the way to leave the camp and make their way in the world. Without an education they have few opportunities to leave the camp and at present they are not allowed to earn a salary whilst there, so they must depend on the WFP ration, the UNHCR tents, the LWF school buildings and teachers, the KEEP uniforms and books, the IRC health care - all provided only to the extent that dwindling aid resources can support and whatever they can supplement these with from the thriving informal economy within the camp.
The local Community Services representative for UNHCR acknowledged how difficult these kind of regulations are for people like the girls to whom we spoke, who are affected by protracted refugee situations. We may think that to stay dependent for a few months, even a year may be manageable, but some of the residents of Kakuma have been there for more than 10 years, some since it opened in 1992. In 2011, UNHCR revised the average length of time that someone was likely to spend in a refugee camp from nine years to 17. But things are said to be changing and a voucher system, rather than a dry food ration, will be set up giving refugees the choice as to how they 'spend' their support. There apparently may even be more opportunity for support to real livelihoods in the future. However, a little research on returning to Nairobi shows that UNHCR came to the conclusion in 2009 that a different approach was necessary to move from care and maintenance of protracted refugee populations to a focus on livelihoods and self-reliance. But in 2015 the situation in Kakuma remains the same.
In the face of all of this, the girls that we met were enormously resilient, hopeful and determined. The KEEP project is facilitating some of that resilience and hope and there are signs that amongst the Windle Trust and other agencies working with the girls there is a growing coordination and integration so that when the opportunities for more self-reliance and livelihoods arise, they may be well placed to facilitate this too.
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.
Photo Credit: European Commission/ECHO, Anna Chudolinska