The Struggle for Equality - Why girls lose out

Why education for refugees matters

Getting a primary education is difficult enough for girls, but obtaining a place in secondary school is harder still. There are fewer secondary schools in most refugee environments and girls frequently lose out. The coping mechanisms to which families often resort in order to bring in money can end a girl’s education chances for good. Culturally, there may be resistance in some communities to the idea of girls staying in school into their teens.

Yet the need for girls to remain in school for longer is clear and urgent. Globally, educated mothers are more likely to have smaller, healthier and better educated families. Education has helped reduce the rates of child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and maternal and infant mortality, as well as leading to improvements in child health. Educated mothers are more likely to ensure water is clean, seek help when a child is ill and have their children vaccinated. Since they are more aware of their surroundings, including sources of help as well as of danger, educated women are better equipped to protect their children from threats of all kinds.

The need for girls to remain in school for longer is clear and urgent.

In fact, UNESCO estimates that educating mothers to lower secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 could prevent 3.5 million child deaths between 2050 and 2060. In addition, if all girls were educated at secondary education level, it is estimated that child marriage for girls could fall by almost two-thirds, while 59 per cent fewer girls would become pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa and south and west Asia, which are among the top hosting regions for refugees.

The benefits of educating girls are wide reaching. Many girls talk of the new respect they receive in their communities as a result of completing secondary school, giving them the confidence to speak out and to become leaders in their own right. Those who reach higher education, such as Esther, act as much-needed role models for succeeding generations.

Women with a secondary education are more likely to ensure that their own children go to school.

At global level, for every ten refugee boys in primary school there are fewer than eight refugee girls; at secondary school the figure is worse, with fewer than seven refugee girls for every ten refugee boys. Among populations where there are significant cultural barriers to girls’ education, the difference is stark. In Pakistan, for example, 47 per cent of Afghan boys are enrolled at primary school, compared with 23 per cent of girls. Dropout rates among Afghan refugee girls are high – 90 per cent in some areas. As a result, the literacy rate for refugee girls and women in Pakistan is less than 8 per cent. This, in turn, means there are fewer female teachers who might encourage more girls to attend school, making it increasingly di cult with each generation to break the cycle.

That this is still possible against all the odds, is shown by the story of one dedicated teacher, Aqeela Asifi.

The teacher’s tale: 2015 Nansen Refugee Award winner

In 1992, three years after Soviet troops had withdrawn and with mujahideen forces encircling Kabul, Aqeela Asifi fled the Afghan capital with her family and travelled to the Kot Chandana refugee village, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Nearly a quarter of a century later, she is still in exile.

As a former teacher, she was struck by the lack of schooling for girls, a consequence of the conservative culture in the refugee village, and was determined to teach them.

After winning the backing of the village elders, she went door-to-door to persuade reluctant parents to let her tutor their children. She began with 20 students in a makeshift school in a borrowed tent, writing out worksheets by hand. More came, the tiny school blossomed and in time Aqeela expanded the school to six tents.

“When I first set up my school I was not very optimistic about the success of my mission,” she said. “But when I look back, I feel I have achieved more than I envisaged.”

Today, the school is a permanent brick building with 159 pupils who crowd round Aqeela at the start of the school day in an unruly roll call. The girls, aged from 6 to 16, are mostly Afghan refugees born in Pakistan, but there are Pakistani girls among them, too. Aqeela’s school has transformed the lives of more than 1,000 girls who have reached eighth grade and received a nationally endorsed certificate. They have gone on to become teachers, pursue further education and support their families, in Pakistan as well as on their return to Afghanistan.

As a former teacher, she was struck by the lack of schooling for girls.

Her husband, Sher Muhammad, has championed her work from the beginning. “In the future I would like [the schools] to go beyond eighth grade and include technical schools, so they can play a positive role in the development of Afghanistan,” he said.

Pakistan is the second-largest refugee-hosting country in the world, with more than 1.5 million registered refugees and an estimated one million undocumented Afghans. Pakistan has an estimated 25 million of its own children who do not attend school, the second-largest number in the world. Of the school-age Afghan refugee population, about 75 per cent do not attend school. Islamic Republic of Iran hosts a further 950,000 Afghans with more than 360,000 Afghan refugee children accessing primary and secondary education and receiving the same treatment as nationals. Since 2015, all Afghan children of school age, regardless of documentation status, can attend primary and secondary education.

Aqeela’s courageous work earned her the 2015 Nansen Refugee Award, presented every year to honour extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced. Bending over her charges as they tackle their writing exercises, she constantly explains, corrects and encourages. “When you have educated mothers, you will almost certainly have educated future generations,” she said. “So if you educate girls, you educate generations.

Continue to Section 6: Call to Action