“A Plan beyond Survival”: Removing barriers for refugee girls and women to access higher education

Levels of Learning - Tertiary Education
Right to Education

This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series. 

It is almost impossible to dream beyond what you are exposed to. Growing up as a refugee girl child, I did not have any refugee women to look up to in higher education or leadership spaces. Although my own parents were strongly pro-education and a source of encouragement throughout my studies, I saw the impact of this lack of role models first hand when I started post-secondary education. I quickly realized that there were very few female refugee students and almost no female refugee professors or instructors in my field of study at my university. This made me question what I would be able to achieve, and suppress some of my own ambitions.   

Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

Increased representation of refugee girls and women in higher education would mean more role models for young refugee girls to look up to for motivation, inspiration and guidance. Role models are the people whom we turn to for help and relevant advice because they can relate to our experiences better than other people, and can encourage you to set your own ambitions higher. We need NGOs, policy-makers and other supporting governments to open new pathways to quality higher education for refugee girls and women in all refugee camps across the world, because there is still a strikingly huge deficit.     
Refugee youths are not any different from other young people across the world. But their exposure to hardships, war-related violence, and devastating life circumstances at a tender age does leave them more vulnerable than the average young person. Refugee youths are trapped in constant uncertainty of what the future holds for them, and this weighs so much on one’s ability to plan long-term and concentrate on academics with a clear mind. 

Over the 12 years that I lived as a refugee in Malawi, everything about life seemed uncertain. We were always told that we could be returning to our home countries soon. But how soon?  No one ever knows. According to UNHCR, refugees are displaced for 20 years on average. While we might hope to return to our home countries sooner, we must also face the reality that displacement is often protracted—and that investing in high quality education for refugee girls and women is a realistic goal and a necessary one.

As of 2019, forty percent of the world’s 79.5 million forcibly displaced people were below the age of 18. Let us pause for a moment and think about this sad reality. This means that 34 million children will not have a normal childhood, and may not have access to a quality education - one of the most basic human rights. Girls in particular may struggle to achieve this dream. In conflict-affected countries, girls are 2.5 times likely to drop out of school than boys. The problem of educational access for both girls and boys actually gets worse with age. Globally, only 3% of young refugees have the opportunity to access higher education. What happens to the remaining 97% of young refugees?

Over the years, the attention of the international community has been focused on lower levels of education, and investments in post-secondary education have lagged behind. Although primary and secondary school are the foundation to one’s academic life, it is equally significant to invest in quality higher education as we move forward. It is sadly not unusual to see refugee girls - who have overcome many challenges to complete primary and secondary education - become victims of early marriage when they and their families are faced with the reality that there are no opportunities waiting for them after secondary school. 

Rachel Samuel, author, at University of Toronto graduation

Access to higher education will be a motivating factor for many young refugee girls who need to envision themselves in spaces beyond secondary school. When I was selected to go to University of Toronto in Canada from Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, what moved me the most was the words that I received from the young girls and boys in my neighborhood. Many told me that they not only hoped to do post-secondary education, but hoped to attend University of Toronto like me. Coming from a society where girls’ education is often looked down upon, I felt like I had opened a door of hope to the young refugee girls who doubted themselves because of the society’s attitudes to girls’ academic success. The first step is unlocking the possibilities— but after that, the barriers of cost and lack of opportunities geared toward refugees still remain. 

So how can we address these barriers? 

In February 2021, Canada launched the Together for Learning Campaign to address the acute education crisis experienced by refugee and internally displaced children and youths. It will be important to involve the international key players in this campaign, including G7 countries, refugee resettlement countries, and policy makers. While Canada’s unique private resettlement model has given some refugee youth a golden opportunity, we need to extend similar programs to all countries that receive refugees through refugee resettlement programs. A key piece of this puzzle is to address the immigration requirements that act as a barrier for brilliant young refugees to access quality education in countries outside their asylum countries. Additionally, we need to create more pathways to quality higher education for refugee and internally displaced young people. Scholarship programs are important, but we need to look for alternative and most cost-effective pathways as well. 

There is an increasing number of international organizations working on this issue, including Red Cross, Jesuit Refugee Services, UNHCR, and others. This is not enough— we need more actors to be on board. Key in my own educational journey was the Student Refugee Program scholarships offered by World University Service of Canada (WUSC). When I learnt about the opportunity to resettle in Canada and access higher education, I was motivated to continue working hard in secondary school despite being bullied for being a refugee. I learnt how to optimize the little resources that I had and kept my eyes on the prize. The SRP scholarship was the only door to the future that I dreamed of because I wanted a place to call home. I wanted to plan beyond survival. This is what every young refugee needs.