Forced displacement in Africa has a female face

Africa’s bold steps to address the gender dimension of forced displacement and its impact on the education of girls.

March 28, 2019 by Victoria Egbetayo, GPE Secretariat, and Catherine Nyambura, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat
7 minutes read
Happy girl at Kiryandongo refugee settlement.  Uganda. Credit: GPE/Henry Bongyereirwe
Happy girl at Kiryandongo refugee settlement. Uganda.
Credit: GPE/Henry Bongyereirwe

A child uprooted from home – whether a refugee, a migrant or internally displaced – is a child first and foremost, and every child has the right to an education. UNHCR estimates that at least 68.5 million people globally today are forcibly displaced, 25.4 million of whom are refugees. Approximately 52% of refugees are under the age of 18.

The recently published Global Education Monitoring Report also made migration displacement and education its focus for 2019. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the face of this crisis is mostly female: women and girls make up half the population in camps.

Where is the nexus? Gendered dimension of forced displacement and impact on education

Crisis and conflict cause catastrophic disruption to education. Refugees are five times more likely to be out of school than other children. Displaced persons are often not part of education systems or attend schools with tightly constrained resources. A refugee spends on average 20 years in a host country - meaning a child could spend its entire school-life in a refugee camp, with little hope for a job or career.

Lack of access to quality education perpetuates and magnifies the challenges of life in exile and the experience of displacement – finding work, staying healthy, holding on to dignity and hope. Its effects are uniquely cross-sectoral in nature, contributing to high rates of child marriage, early pregnancy, child mortality, and increasing the risks for girls to violence and exploitation.

There is growing evidence that crises, both natural disasters and conflicts, exacerbate risks for girls to early marriage and sexual violence, and make it more difficult to implement programs that support girls. For example, West and Central Africa has one of the highest prevalence of child marriage. Sahel countries such as Niger, the Central African Republic and Chad are within the top 3 countries with the highest rates in the world, illustrating that humanitarian crises intensify risks for women and girls.

Similarly, high maternal and infant mortality rates in Africa are higher for displaced women and girls, particularly adolescents. There are also immense gaps in policy and legal frameworks on sexual violence against girls in these contexts. These critical gender dimensions of forced displacement should be central to policy discussions and legal reforms in this area.

In countries affected by conflict, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys; and have fewer education opportunities, thus depriving them of the opportunity to rebuild their lives and protect themselves against abuse.

Strategies are needed to redress the imbalance nationally, regionally and globally to allow more girls to attend and stay in school, even if they had to flee their home. Educating women and girls is essential for durable and long-lasting solutions to crisis and conflict, and key to unlocking their empowerment and potential as leaders of peace.

Action is needed across the board to enable displaced girls to access quality education – from national education ministries and teacher training institutions, to communities and classrooms. And to bridge the gap between laws to enhance gender equality and their implementation.

If we neglect displaced girls’ education, the consequences will be felt for generations. Making women and girls a priority in situations of displacement and seeking greater accountability for political commitments and legal protections was the clarion call of partners at the 33rd GIMAC and the 32nd AU Summit in February 2019.

Displacement in Africa and bold political commitments

The 32nd African Union Summit in February marked 2019 as “The ‘Year of the Refuges, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons” and sought to find “durable solutions to forced displacement”. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), together with its partners, added its voice to discussions on the gender dimensions of forced displacement, particularly as it impacts girls, and highlighted measures needed to ensure they continue to receive an education.

Africa has the largest proportion of children living in emergencies, conflict and disaster situations, an estimated 393 million (3 quarters of the global population). Some of the largest refugee camps in the world are on the continent: BidiBidi in Uganda, Daadab and Kakuma in Kenya.

Africa's generosity to those fleeing from war and persecution is unmatched and an example that compassion is not proportional to wealth.
António Guterres, UN Secretary General, remarked at the opening of the AU Summit

The continent is home to 1/3 of the world’s refugee population, and the highest proportion of these are refugee children and females, 51% and 59% respectively. Amongst the top 10 countries hosting refugees, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia house a greater proportion of refugee girls than boys. So, while boys and girls are affected by crisis and conflict, the face of displacement in Africa is undoubtedly and disproportionately that of a girl.

Although as a region Africa has demonstrated political will and actionable commitments to address the need of displaced populations, the 32nd AU Summit and preceding 33rd meeting of the Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) were opportunities to hone in on the gender dimensions of displacement.

The 2019 AU theme marked the 10th anniversary of the African Union’s Kampala Convention, a first of its kind  instrument that also influenced the development of the recent Global Compact on Refugees, as highlighted by the UN Secretary General.

The Summit commemorated 50 years since the Organization of African Unity’s Convention (predecessor to the AU), which governed specific aspects of population displacement in Africa, including refugees. Together these landmark regional policy commitments complement the AU Protocol on Free Movement of Africans across continent and the Continental Free Trade Area. Highlighting the complex cross sectoral nature of migration and displacement.

Bridging the humanitarian and development divide for girls - from bold political commitments to accountability

The 33rd GIMAC, under the theme “Towards Gender-Responsive Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement” provided a unique Pan-African platform for civil society to leverage its influence and their partners’ on the African Union gender equality agenda across six areas (governance, peace and security, human rights, health, education and economic empowerment). As an accountability platform, GIMAC also monitors the implementation of the AU’s Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA).

Similarly, with the continent nearing the end of the African Women’s Charter and its decade Plan of Action and celebrating the 15th anniversary of protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' rights on the rights of women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), this GIMAC carried additional significance.

A session led by FAWE, which included GPE, Save the Children and IGAD, enabled regional and global education partners to examine hindrances to education opportunities for displaced girls and women in crisis situations, discussed restoring education infrastructure and school environment in emergency situations, and alternative approaches of enhancing the learning outcomes among survivors of conflict situations and natural disasters. This and other sessions included powerful testimonies by youth activists and survivors of displacement left to find their own means to support their education.

This was followed by the AU’s 3rd High Level Dialogue on Gender, Education and Protection of Schools in Humanitarian Settings, which engaged African ministers of Education, Gender and Defense, as well as global education and development actors, and called on governments to address the vulnerability of displaced girls and boys to ensure their continued schooling in humanitarian and emergency situations.

Specifically, this can be done by using a gender responsive approach that involves women and girls in decision making in camps and resettlement, strengthening sex disaggregated data, coordination and partnership, and by bridging the humanitarian and development divide so education services don’t stop in times of crisis and displaced girls and boys can continue to receive an education.

Governments were called on to mainstream gender-responsive education sector planning in these contexts to reduce the number of out-of-school children living in conflict, humanitarian crises, and encouraged countries to sign up and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.

Young people hold governments accountable

Central to GIMAC and the 3rd High Level Dialogue was the voice of displaced youth and young leaders, who are building their capacity as influencers and citizens to hold governments accountable for the commitments made. FAWE and the AU liaison office of Plan International co-convened a training session on enhancing the capacity of civil society, including youth, to monitor and report on the Maputo Protocol and Solemn Declaration, and to influence policy and decision making on issues that affect them.

The GIMAC outcome document and youth statement urged African leaders to take concrete actions on education in the development of gender-responsive, durable solutions to forced displacement.

They emphasized the need to provide access to quality education through increased budgetary allocation and public-private partnerships to meet the needs of displaced women and girls, the integration of refugees into education sector plans, and the provision of comprehensive sexuality education for young people.

Lessons from regional processes

Looking toward upcoming landmark moments (Women Deliver Conference, G7 Summit and UN General Assembly), it is time for the world to zero in on gender equality in education. We must heed what is already happening at the regional level and recognize the gendered dimension of development challenges.

If we are to achieve the SDGs and ensure no girl is left behind, the faces of displaced girls and women must be front and center of discussions on action across sectors.


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