A mix of cultural practices, such as early and forced marriage, as well as child labour, are depriving girls of education in the Dadaab refugee complex in eastern Kenya.
Out of Dadaab’s estimated population of 463,000 mainly Somali refugees, more than half are children under 18; of these about 38 percent attend school. The proportion of girls in the camps’ primary and secondary schools is 38 and 27 percent, respectively, according to the UN Refugee Agency. A third of girls aged between 5 and 13 in Dabaab go to school; for those aged 14 to 17, only one in 20 are enrolled.
Hawa Ahmed, who arrived in Dadaab about seven months ago with her six children, told IRIN that only her sons attend school.
Her two daughters stay at home cooking, washing utensils and fetching water. "[These are] already enough lessons as they learn how to keep a family," said Hawa as she plaited her daughter’s hair.
While boys are generally encouraged to attend school, barriers to girls’ education remain. A local saying among Somalis in Dadaab, for example, is `Gabar ama gunti rageed ama god hakaga jirto’ (a girl should either be married or in the grave).
Halima, 19, was married off to an older man in 2011 forcing her to drop out of high school at Dadaab’s Ifo camp. The now divorced single mother of one, said: "I am very disappointed. My life is almost destroyed. I can no longer go back to school because I have to take care of my child; I [have] lost my pride."
Many young girls at the camp are married off against their will to Somali men who come back from the USA and can afford to pay a huge dowry, according to officials.
Female genital mutilation/cutting and sexual and gender violence are also a problem, according to Faiza Dahir, an official with the gender and community development unit of NGO CARE.
A traditional Somali justice system known as ‘maslaha’ makes it difficult to trace the perpetrators of gender violence, "since they are protected under the traditional council, which solves all cases and withdraws complaints to the police."
Meanwhile, aid agencies are coming up with incentive projects to help encourage girls to enrol at, and stay in, school.
The UN World Food Programme, for example, is providing tokens of half a kilogram of sugar to girls who attend 80 percent of classes every month. CARE is also supplying adolescent girls with sanitary pads to minimize drop-outs during menstruation.
Windle Trust Kenya is providing remedial and extra classes to girls in their final primary school year, while the African Development and Emergency Organization (ADEO) provides them with solar lamps.
Those who make it to school in the Ifo-2 and Kambioos extension camps (opened in 2011 to accommodate an influx of Somali refugees fleeing hunger and violence) face congested classrooms with limited facilities, with some forced to sit on the ground due to a lack of desks.
"We have struggled to solicit a learning space for the children and immediately established some primary schools in the Ifo extension camp to accommodate as many children as possible," Fanuel Rendiki, ADEO's education coordinator in Ifo camp, told IRIN.
Aid agencies such as CARE and Save the Children have also started an accelerated learning programme to train the refugees in basic numeracy and literacy.
The refugee youth umbrella organization is also helping to provide stationery. "We have distributed over 2,500 exercise books to children in Kambioos; we are also planning to do the same in Ifo-2," Aden Tarah, a member of the youth committee, told IRIN.