Every weekday morning, Christine Keji* makes her way to a brick and bamboo structure erected inside Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in northwestern Uganda. There, she spends nine hours listening to lectures and taking notes in books that she bought by selling a portion of her food ration. At 4:30 in the afternoon, she returns home to a family that is not her own, spending the rest of her day cooking, cleaning, collecting firewood, and fetching water for them. At the end of the day, if she is not too tired, she sits down in a corner and studies her lessons.
“I am always in the kitchen doing everything as if I am a mom, but first of all, I am a student,” Keji told Broadly.
This has been seventeen-year-old Keji’s routine for about a year. Having fled to Uganda in December 2016, she's a secondary school-going refugee from South Sudan, one of the toughest countries in the world for a girl to receive an education according to a recent report published by the advocacy organization ONE. At 27 percent, South Sudan has among the world’s lowest literacy rates, and most girls like Keji, who are accessing education against all odds, are among its first generation learners.
South Sudan, which is celebrating its seventh year of independence this year, was only just recovering from decades of civil war when an ethnic and political conflict erupted again in 2013, leading to thousands of deaths and the displacement of about 4.5 million people. Uganda now hosts more than one million South Sudanese refugees. Last year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that it was registering more than 100 unaccompanied minors and separated children per day. Keji was one of them.
Keji had been living in Yei town with her siblings in order to attend school, but she and her 19-year-old sister fled after government soldiers allegedly shot her two brothers outside their residence in the middle of the night. “I woke up from a dream and heard my brothers crying,” Keji recalled. “When we went out, one of them came at us with a gun and said that if we cry, they’ll shoot us, too.”
Keji, who had lost her father a few years before her brothers’ deaths, was supported by her brothers back in South Sudan and has not been able to locate or contact her mother.
A month after Keji arrived in Rhino Camp refugee settlement, her sister moved to another settlement to attend secondary school. So, Keji moved in with a family that was once her neighbor in South Sudan, offering household help in exchange for housing because the threat of sexual assault prevents her from living alone.
Without any assistance or counseling for how best to move forward, the only thing that has kept Keji going, she said, is the prospect of receiving an education. For her and other girls in her settlement interviewed by Broadly, schooling feels like the key to moving past trauma, rebuilding their lives, and returning home—both in the short term and the long term. With education, they can pursue professional opportunities in Uganda; and upon return to South Sudan, they can help secure the economic future of their home country, plus attempt to mitigate the effect of the conflict by becoming community leaders and peace builders.
Keji specifically hopes to complete school so that she can study theology, become a pastor, and preach peace in her home country. “We are here because we want to gain more knowledge in order to return to South Sudan,” she said. “Instead of fighting with guns, we want to fight with pens. That is my aim.”
Despite their desire to learn, South Sudanese refugee girls like Keji face compounding barriers that make achieving a high school education an extreme challenge—and the obstacles begin at home.
According to a report released by UNICEF last December, two million school-aged children in South Sudan are out of school—that’s about three quarters of that age range, the highest proportion in the world. In large part, it’s because political conflict has led to attacks on and shuttering of schools, non-payment of teachers’ salaries, and security threats that prevent parents from sending girls to school. The report notes that “if the current situation persists, only one in 13 children is likely to complete the full cycle of primary education.” Vinobajee Gautam, education manager with UNICEF in South Sudan, estimates that for girls, the ratio is even lower, with only one in 25 girls likely to complete primary education. And the country’s rate of secondary school attendance is even more dire.
“The biggest challenge that girls here face is that in most parts of South Sudan, they’re looked at as domestic workers,” said Florence Okayo, education officer with UNICEF in South Sudan. Girls are expected to marry young in exchange for a dowry or “bride price,” often in the form of cattle, and parents are more likely to educate boys while discouraging girls from going to school, she added.
In South Sudan, more than half of the country’s girls below the age of 18 are married, and at 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births, a girl in South Sudan is more likely to die of child birth than complete her primary education, UNICEF reports.
Nineteen-year-old Edina Mercy, another Rhino Camp inhabitant, was married early and gave birth at the age of 15, at which point her husband left her. Although her parents refused to pay her school fees, she sold charcoal in order to afford the payments.
After fleeing South Sudan, however, access to education became even more difficult for Mercy, as is the case for most refugees in Uganda. She had just begun her secondary education, but no longer has the financial and childcare support necessary for her to return to school.
According to Newton Odong, the education project manager at Rhino Camp for the NGO Windle International Uganda which runs schools in the settlement, the largest barrier to schooling for girls living in Ugandan refugee settlements is cost of tuition and school supplies, but that’s compounded by things like trauma, scarcity of food and water, and lack of proper health services, boarding facilities, and sanitary pads.
A few, like Keji, receive scholarships that cover their school fees but others, like 17-year-old Sarah Tabe, are forced to periodically sell their paltry rations to raise the approximately 84,000 Ugandan Shilling ($22) annual tuition cost. (The school does not refuse admission to students but asks that they pay the fees in small sums when they can during the course of the year). Tabe lost her father to sickness in 2013 and her mother, with whom she lives in the settlement, continues to be sick. Even for the healthy, however, lack of income opportunities can make the tuition cost an unattainable sum.
“I don’t feel happy selling my food to pay school fees,” Tabe said. “What about hunger? If you’re hungry, you really can’t understand much in class.”
Funding shortage has meant that the food ration that is distributed in the settlements of Uganda is often cut, making it inadequate for most. The girls said they only eat one meal a day, and until this February when a water tank was installed in the school, they also went without a sip of water until evening on most days.
Gautam stressed the extreme difficulty of prioritizing secondary education amid mass displacement: “We have to prevent children from dying of hunger. That is the kind of situation we are in right now.” He also noted, however, that without education, girls were likely to fall into a cycle of abject poverty while becoming more vulnerable to child marriage, sexual exploitation, and recruitment as child soldiers.
In the face of myriad obstacles, Rhino Camp’s Ofua Secondary School, where Keji and Tabe attend classes, began its new term in February with around 100 girls occupying its classrooms—a marked improvement from just 37 when the school opened last year.
And Okayo, who was once a refugee in Uganda herself and completed her education there before returning to South Sudan in 2005, is optimistic: “As long as security is put in place, girls in South Sudan will do great one day,” she said. “At least the few that are [in school], we see them working hard. We see them doing things.”
Meanwhile efforts are being made to make education more accessible for girls in South Sudan. In 2013, there were only approximately 730 girls in their last year of secondary school in the entire country. But largely because of a government scholarship program for girls’ education launched in 2013, 2,338 girls appeared for the secondary school leaving exam in 2016, as per the country’s public data.
“There’s an urgent need to empower refugee girls socially and economically,” Odong said. “It’s through education that they can achieve transformation at a personal level and that will also benefit the country of their origin.”
Girls in Ofua secondary school are acutely aware of this as they struggle to access basic needs, complete household chores, and walk long distances to attend classes in the settlement. “Currently in South Sudan, we do not have many educated or working women,” Tabe said. “It is important for organizations to support us girls to attend school here so we can improve our lives.” Others said that some of the first things they packed as they fled the country were their notebooks, and in the last many months, these notebooks had helped them feel optimistic about the future and forget everything else for a little while every day.
Like Okayo once did, the girls use education to retain a sense of normalcy and purpose in their lives. And they hope to return to their country one day to pursue careers as nurses, accountants, and financiers—professions inspired by their lack of healthcare as refugees and the role of money in South Sudan’s political conlflict.
“Being a refugee doesn’t mean their right to education should be deprived,” Okayo added. “The future of a girl will be different with education. I will testify to that.”
*Name has been changed for source's safety.
Sarita Santoshini reported from Uganda with the support of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).