Educating refugee girls presents a unique and complicated challenge in many places around the world. This issue is pressing because it is the intersection of two issues that can severely harm a person’s life: the refugee crisis and the lack of opportunities to educate all girls. Forgoing an education can affect many aspects of a girl’s life. For example, girls who are educated are healthier and have smaller, healthier families. Education can protect them from child marriage, empower them to take control of their own futures, and lead to a more peaceful society as a whole.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that worldwide, there are currently 22.5 million refugees, more than half of whom come from South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria. Of the 17 million school-aged children who are either refugees or otherwise displaced, only one half receive a primary school education and less than one quarter receive a secondary school education. On top of that, girls in conflict zones are 2.5 times more likely to miss schooling than boys in the same conditions. Even before the refugee crisis began, girls in these areas are less likely to get an education. Afghanistan, for example, has been deemed a priority focus for the Malala Fund, the girls’ education organization founded by Nobel Peace Laureate and activist Malala Yousafzi.
In many places around the world, schooling for girls is not expected or allowed, yet the benefits to schooling girls go beyond opportunities for the girls themselves. Educated girls are more likely to marry later in life which leads to smaller and healthier families in addition to strengthening the local economy. Educated women also lead to more stable communities and a healthier environment. This is why the United Nations made girls education a priority in drafting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Sustainable Development Goals articulate aims to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all” (SDG 4), “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (SDG 5), and “reduce inequalities within and among countries” (SDG 10). Indeed, the fifth target of SDG 4 aims to “eliminate gender disparities in education” by the year 2030. UN-backed refugee camps around the world include education programs to ensure that all children can continue their schooling even when fleeing their homes. However, even when there is access to some kind of schooling, it may be difficult for these girls to learn. On top of language barriers, conditions in camps may make it hard for these children to be students.
The issue of education for refugee girls is being addressed by a few organizations, both UN agencies and independent non-profits, as well as governments. On the legislative front, there was a bill introduced into the United States House of Representatives in May, 2017. The bill, H.R. 2408—Protecting Girls' Access to Education Act—was endorsed by The United Nations Foundation's Girl Up campaign and is currently being processed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. This is an opportunity for constituents to contact their representatives and urge them to support the progress of this bill towards adoption.
As for independent non-profits, the Malala Fund has a specific program for Syrian refugee girls. On July 12, 2015 (Malala’s eighteenth birthday) Malala opened a school in Lebanon for teenage Syrian refugee girls. In addition, the Malala Fund continues to finance several programs in Jordan for refugee girls. The Women’s Refugee Commission helps to create safe “girl-centered” spaces where adolescent girls can learn vocational skills and socialize. They also help pair these refugee girls with an older girl or woman who serves as a mentor.
A number of UN agencies are also very concerned with this issue, primarily the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), although they are geared more towards children in general rather than girls specifically. UNHCR has partnered with Educate a Child to educate children in exile in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The organizations plan to educate 710,000 refugee kids by 2019. In addition, UNHCR sponsors a scholarship to help these adolescents reach their full potential. UNICEF trains teachers and equips them with tools to help children in emergency situations continue their schooling uninterrupted. UNICEF carries out much of their programming through partnerships and have partnered with Education Cannot Wait to reach the children in these crises.
The Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee have also worked to help refugees during this time of crisis. For Unitarian Universalists, our, Seven Principles call us to support education for refugee girls; Principles One (the inherent worth and dignity of every person), Four (a free and responsible search for truth and meaning), and Six (the goal of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all) link to this issue.
Globally girls are at a disadvantage when it comes to access to education which means that they are not receiving the same benefits to their physical and mental health or economic and social opportunities that boys are. This is especially pronounced when those girls become refugees. Although there are some organizations working to change the status quo, there is still much more to be done. You can help by contacting your representatives to advocate for policy to help refugee girls, or by supporting any of the organizations mentioned above. There is hope that every girl, no matter what situation she is in, can receive schooling and take charge of her own future.