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Although many more refugee girls are attending primary school, retention rates drop drastically in later years, Guereda camp, eastern Chad (Peter Balleis/JRS)
N'Djamena, 11 September 2014 – Walking long distances to fetch water in the blistering desert heat of eastern Chad is not to be underestimated. It is one of the most arduous of tasks facing Sudanese women living in refugee camps in eastern Chad, a place where socio-cultural traditions tend to limit their role strictly to the domestic sphere: household chores, caring for large families and fetching water.

In addition to the patriarchal nature of society, poverty places even more responsibility on refugee women and girls in their households. Childhood is short for displaced Sudanese girls amongst whom early marriage and motherhood are prevalent. Unsurprisingly, many struggle to keep up with their studies and simultaneously care for their families. Educated or not, girls must ensure that household chores are done, young children are looked after and income is made to meet the needs of their families.

Impediments to education. In reality, the number of girls enrolled in pre-school and primary classes in refugee camps in eastern Chad is more or less equal to that of boys – an indicator that the enthusiasm and curiosity regarding girls education, encouraged in recent years, has had a tangible impact.

However, the ratio of female to male students falls dramatically as we advance up the educational ladder. Under the weight of domestic responsibilities, girls are frequently unable to keep up with their schoolwork, or are simply kept at home in line with more traditional gender roles.

In Djabal camp, out of the nearly 2,500 girls enrolled very few finish the school year or pass their exams. The pass rate for girls in Djabal camp, taking public exams at the end of grade eight, is 25 percent, as opposed to 75 percent for boys.

In schools managed by the Jesuit Refugee Service in eastern Chad, educating girls is part of a wider response to the challenges facing the refugee community. In a context in which women are rarely literate and are absent from leadership roles, providing education is an integral part of any response that hopes to alter this reality. The JRS response focuses on offering literacy classes to young women and encouraging girls to attend secondary school and in take on leadership roles in their communities.

Enhancing leadership. In the 2013-2014 school year, women comprised barely 20 percent of the teachers in Djabal camp. The equivalent statistic in Kounoungou and Mile camps were 27 and 26 percent respectively. Only one of the school principals was a woman.

The establishment of women's groups in camp schools in Kounoungou and Mile is an initial step towards promoting women leaders. These volunteer groups promote and defend the respect for women's rights in schools and reinforce the capacity of women teachers in the classroom. The volunteers provide a variety of workshops to women teachers, including leadership training, school management, women's rights, equality and protection. They also act as advocates for girl survivors of sexual- and gender-based violence.

Even though the measures undertaken so far have encouraged parents to send their daughters to school, retention rates remain low. In Djabal camp, in order to facilitate a greater success rate in grade eight exams, a tutorial programme has been set up to reinforce capacity for the 104 girls undergoing exams to complete primary school in 2014.

Both Hawa Daoud Issack and Darassalam Djouma Issack, young girls who have participated in the remedial classes organised by JRS, agree on the importance of the classes.

"I hope all the grade eight subjects will be taught in study groups to allow us to continue our progress," added Darassalam.

Further challenges to education. Yet, in some schools, children have to go home during the breaks to get drinking water anywhere nearby. Instead of going back to school after the break, some parents keep the girls at home to do household chores. In other words, access to drinking water can mean access to education. In an attempt to keep girls at school in Djabal camp, three new wells have been built this year near the school.

But this is not the only challenge the girls face. The rate of childbirth among young Sudanese mothers in eastern Chad is very high. A third school crèche was established this year. It is hoped this will encourage more young mothers to stay in school rather than dropping out to care for their children at home.

Even with access to drinking water and improved childcare facilities, the economic issues affecting many girls, particularly young mothers, remain unresolved. Refugees in eastern Chad have few opportunities to become financially independent. Increasingly recognising the importance of family wellbeing to girls education, livelihood programmes have been established for Sudanese refugees in Djabal camp. If their parents develop ways of earning a living, the household contribution of their daughters will then become less essential in ensuring the financial security of their families.

Even though much still needs to be done to guarantee all girls' access to quality education, Sudanese women in refugee camps are becoming more aware of their vulnerable situation in society and are more willing to encourage their daughters to attend school. Now we have to make it a lot easier for families in poverty to make willingness a reality.

Isidore Ngueuleu, JRS West Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer