Refugee Girls Want to Change the World. Will We Let Them?
Although cultural tides are shifting, a lack of educational resources and opportunities makes it hard for girls to reach their potential.
The United States resettles more refugees than any other country, but the number allowed in has been decreasing steadily since President Trump took office. In 2016, the United States welcomed 84,994 refugees, just six shy of its cap. In September, the Trump Administration proposed lowering the cap to 30,000.
The administration has defended the reductions in part by arguing that refugees don’t want to come to the United States; they want to go home. That’s not entirely wrong. None of the refugees I meet during a week reporting in Kakuma mention coming to the United States. Many talk instead about returning home and working to rebuild once violence subsides.
Forty percent of primary school students in Kakuma are girls, but they make up less than a quarter of all secondary school enrollments. That’s despite research that shows educating girls leads to a drop in child marriage and child mortality rates and an increase in female earnings.
Nearly 20 million refugees live under the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate, more than half of whom are under the age of 18. More than a third of those children and teens don’t attend school. When they do, the schools are chronically underfunded. Windle Trust Kenya, the nonprofit that runs Kakuma’s secondary schools in partnership with UNHCR, lacks the money to do more than triage. It spends just $153 per pupil. (By comparison, per pupil spending in the United States tops $11,000.) That’s not enough money to reduce class sizes that frequently surpass 100, or make sure every student has access to textbooks.
In 1991, Kakuma was just a small town in a barren part of Kenya. The camp was established as a UNHCR location in 1992 when thousands of refugees—including the orphaned Lost Boys of Sudan—began arriving. Soon, more refugees poured in from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. By 2014, Kakuma was 58,000 people over capacity and the UN created a new settlement just north to accommodate those continuing to flee.
The UN aims to have a 40:1 student-to-teacher ratio in its refugee schools. In Kakuma, there are more than 95 students for each teacher.