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Joyce has been enrolled at Pagirinya Secondary School since 2017. (JRS)

Adjumani, 28 May 2018 – A group of about 60 mostly young men and a handful of girls are crowded in a makeshift classroom, their attention fixed to the front of the room.  The classroom consists of a weather-beaten tarpaulin tent supported by thin wooden beams. Somehow someone managed to mount a medium sized blackboard on this structure, lending it an air of a legitimate learning space.

Unfazed by this glaring lack of basic school necessities, the students carry on with the activities which in this moment consist of transcribing the contents of the blackboard into their exercise books. The makeshift structure is actually partitioned into two classrooms, the latest addition to this small and overcrowded secondary school located at Pagirinya, the new sprawling refugee settlement in Adjumani district in northern Uganda.

18-year-old Joyce arrived in Uganda in 2016 from South Sudan and she has been enrolled in the school since last year. She feels fortunate to be in school and she hopes she can go all the way and complete her secondary education here.

“Some girls drop out due to lack of school fees”, she says, pointing to one of the reasons for the poor enrolment of girls in school. Access to education is certainly a big challenge across the board in the settlements, but girls in particular are at an even greater disadvantage. In communities where girls are typically valued less than boys, parents with limited resources often prioritize the education of boys, estimating that sending girls to school would be wasteful.

This practice is often underpinned by cultural gender biases which restrict the role of women to bearing children and household duties. As a result, even those girls who are in school are at a risk of being pulled out prematurely to be married off to much older men, raising a host of child protection issues.

Joyce is all too aware of this and she knows she is lucky to be in school. Her determination to secure a better future for herself through education is unflinching. Her dream is to become a surgeon. “If I see others suffering, it really pains me,” she says, stressing the importance of studying hard and finishing her studies in order to “become a responsible person who can also care for others.”  

A few years ago, there were no secondary schools for refugees in Pagirinya and, although Uganda’s progressive refugee regime allows refugee children to attend any school anywhere in the country, most refugee parents could not afford the tuition fees. Many secondary school-age children were spending their days idle in the settlements, raising the specter of youth delinquency. So, the parents felt they needed to find a solution.

Next…learn how the parents of refugee children in Pagirinya and dedicated teachers worked to build the Pagirinya Secondary School.