Thirteen-year-old Wita Kasanganjo is a pupil at Maratatu Primary School in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement based in Uganda’s Hoima district. But last month, when Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni ordered the re-opening of schools for the first time since the mid-March nationwide closure, Kasanganjo was not part of the returning group of students. The government, in a cautious lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, has allowed only pupils who are part of the final year or candidate classes to return to their schooling.
“Not being in class for all this time is not fun. I miss my friends at school and my teachers too,” Kasanganjo tells IPS, saying that she looks forward to the day when the government allows all children to return to school. Kasanganjo has lived as a refugee in Uganda since 2015 when she and her mother fled from armed conflict in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri province.
During the coronavirus lockdown and subsequent school closures, close to 15 million girls and boys, including children living in refugee settlements across this East African nation, were affected. And while pupils in their final years of school, estimated at 1.2 million, returned last month, more than 13 million remain at home, with some still unable to access learning materials.
The most vulnerable among these children include refugee children like Kasanganjo. According to international charity, Save the Children, Uganda hosts the largest number of refugees on the continent.
The numbers are sobering. According to the NGO, 57 percent of refugee children in Uganda are out of school, in some cases for several years. “Even for those who are able to attend school, the quality of education is severely compromised by a shortage of classrooms, teachers and materials. Class sizes average more than 150 children, with some squeezing in 250 children or more,” according to Save the Children Uganda.
Kasanganjo is one of the fortunate ones. She was enrolled in Uganda’s Primary Education under the Education Response Plan for Refugees and Host Communities in Uganda (ERP), facilitated by Education Cannot Wait (ECW).
The plan, the first of its kind globally, was launched two years ago by the Ugandan government together with local and international humanitarian and development partners. “It targets children and youth in 12 refugee-hosting districts in Uganda where more than half a million children are currently out of learning and out of school,” according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.
ECW, the first global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises, provided the impetus to develop the three and a half year ERP and supports its implementation with a $33 million seed funding allocation. ECW is urgently appealing to new and current donors to step up and cover the full $389 million expected cost of the ERP. So far, an additional $93 million has been mobilised.
While other refugee children may not be attending school during the lockdown, Kasanganjo is able to continue learning from home as she has been supplied with reading material distributed by the ERP partners working in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement.
When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, ECW immediately released additional funds through its first emergency response funding window for its partners to quickly set up relevant remote learning solutions and safe and protective learning environments, and to raise awareness of barrier gestures for children and youth and their communities to prevent the spread of the virus.
“In times of crisis, support to continuous learning opportunities is crucial to help protect vulnerable girls and boys who face high risks of permanently dropping out in case of a prolonged interruption to their education. Girls are particularly at risk of child marriage and early pregnancies,” said Yasmine Sherif, director of ECW. “In the face of COVID-19, rapid emergency interventions have been key to protect refugee children and youth and other vulnerable and marginalised girls and boys from an uncertain future and to preserve the gains of ECW’s longer-term multi-year investments in quality education outcomes.”
In total, ECW allocated $1 million in emergency funds to its education partners in Uganda. This includes $475,000 implemented by UNHCR and $525,000 implemented by Save the Children as part of a consortium of civil society organisations, including War Child Holland and ZOA Uganda. The consortium distributed 38,000 home learning kits and more than 900 solar-powered radios that were given to some of the poorest households to ensure children in refugee hosting communities were able to listen to lessons over the radio. The funding also supported classes to be conducted over local radio stations.
“I have I read all the reading materials and answer all the questions. Sometimes I have challenges because I cannot get ready answers, but my mother allows me to visit some of my friends in the community so that we can do the work together. That has really worked for me,” says Kasanganjo.
Geatano Apamaku, a radio manager at Radio Pacis in Uganda’s West Nile region – which lies along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Uganda’s largest concentration of refugees, numbering 750,000, are based – believes that radio classes are more effective compared to distributing the study material and having students learn by themselves.
“We have had children call in asking teachers questions. I think this was more effective because most refugee parents are illiterate. So, they could not help their children learn,” Apamaku tells IPS.
Dugale Severy, a teacher and refugee from South Sudan who lives and teaches in the Nyumanzi Refugee Settlement in Adjumani District, tells IPS that without education programmes for refugee children, many would never have entered a classroom after fleeing their countries. And despite the COVID-19 lockdown, he says that South Sudanese refugee children are receiving a good education.
“Because you cannot learn when you are hearing gunshots. Just like you cannot teach at your best when you are hearing bombshells. I pray that this type of education is extended to other refugee children all over the world,” explains Dugale.
Uganda’s National Commissioner for Basic and Primary Education Dr. Cleophus Mugenyi tells IPS that without funding from ECW, children in refugee settlements would not have been able to continue their education.
“It would be horrible. The children would be denied the right to education, and you know that education is a basic human right for all and it is important for everyone to make the most of their lives. So, children in refugee settlements deserve education, too,” says Mugenyi.
According to Mugenyi, funding from ECW has benefitted refugees and their host communities to improve learning facilities, construct classrooms and pit latrines, and train teachers, among others.
In fact, ECW reports that the primary gross enrolment ratio for refugee children improved from 53 percent in 2017 to 75 percent in 2019, following the Fund’s support to the ERP.
Despite this progress, more is needed as refugees are faced with precarious situations.
“Our appeal to partners is to continue mobilising resources towards this kind of education because from Uganda’s perspective, we have demonstrated that the Education Response Plan for Refugees and Host Communities in Uganda can help children to access education,” says Mugenyi.
But Uganda has done more for refugees than most countries by granting them access to land and services, freedom of movement, and the right to work. According to Save the Children, the Ugandan government has shown “global leadership in refugee policy and how we respond to refugee crises”.
According to the NGO, what happens in Uganda will determine an international framework for the refugee crisis.
“Uganda and the ERP is a test case for the willingness of the international community to back their commitments with practical actions, and ensure that the responsibility of responding to the refugee crisis is shared fairly,” Save the Children states.
ECW is appealing to public and private donors to urgently mobilise $400 million globally. With these resources, ECW will continue to fund emergency education support during the COVID-19 pandemic and in other sudden onset crises, and help develop and roll out multi-year response plans for refugees and other children and youth in a total of 25 protracted crises around the globe.
Meanwhile Gladys Nayema, just like Kasanganjo, is one of the many girls who will continue their home learning. “Some of our colleagues were happy when the schools were closed. They thought it was an early holiday. I didn’t. I have continued to learn from those materials from Save the Children and the government. I urge other boys and girls to read them because they are useful,” she tells IPS.