A girl’s place is in the classroom: Making education more inclusive in the Rohingya refugee camps
Quality and equality are prioritized in the drive to increase the number of Rohingya adolescent girls in school
Rahima Akhter* would do anything to protect her children in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where they live in temporary structures tightly packed among strangers. She worries especially about her daughter’s safety and dignity. Better to keep 14-year-old Nurkolima* at home, Rahima used to think, than let her go to school where she might be the target of unwanted male attention. If keeping Nurkolima safe meant sacrificing her education, then so be it.
Rahima was herself the victim of sexual harassment as a girl in Myanmar. When her parents heard about it, they considered it such a scandal they married her off as quickly as possible. The memory, the humiliation of it all, haunts her still.
“When a girl reaches puberty, she shouldn’t be allowed to go outside. Boys and girls shouldn’t spend time in the same classroom because it can lead to bad things,” Rahima says, explaining a widespread perception shared by many Rohingya parents in in the camps.
The Rohingya refugee camps are home to more than 400,000 school-aged children, half of whom are girls. Learning is vital for their well-being and future prospects, yet girls often face greater barriers to education than boys, due to the social and religious norms that limit the time they may spend outside of the home and who they mix with.
As a result, UNICEF and partners have been working closely with the Rohingya refugee community to convince parents like Rahima of the lasting benefits of sending their adolescent daughters to school.
Barriers to education for Rohingya refugee girls
Education for Rohingya refugee children is provided by 3,400 learning centres – 2,800 of which are supported by UNICEF – spread across the camps. The centres which teach English, Burmese, mathematics, science and life skills, are in demand: 80 per cent of Rohingya children aged between 6 and 11 years old are enrolled in learning centres with enrolment equally high among girls and boys.
But data shows the gender gap becomes prominent as girls get older, with a significant number of Rohingya refugee girls dropping out once they reach puberty - around the age of 12 to 14.
UNICEF together with partners recently went door-to-door, conducting consultations with Rohingya families to understand the factors preventing girls from attending learning centres.
Parents said that sending adolescent girls to learning centres was not culturally appropriate. They believe girls of this age are too old to learn and should not be seen in public spaces with boys.
In addition, many parents do not see the value of educating girls, who are expected to help their mothers at home before getting married and having families of their own – unlike boys who are encouraged to go out in the world to earn a living.
“Girls over 12 years old are supposed to stay home. They take care of younger siblings and cook food for the family,” Rahima says, referring to gender stereotypes that still hold sway in her community.
“My mother didn’t go to school, neither did my female friends. Like other girls, I just followed the rules of society.”
Rohingya parents also cited concerns about the safety of their adolescent daughters in the camps as a reason for keeping them home. Yet girls who stay at home are more vulnerable to the risks of child marriage, early pregnancy, gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.
Creative approaches to learning for female students
Since November 2021, UNICEF and partners have been piloting a project to provide Rohingya refugee children with formal and standardized education based on the national Myanmar curriculum. As part of the Myanmar Curriculum Pilot, UNICEF supports girls-only lessons in recognition that many Rohingya parents prefer this for their daughters.
"In 2019 I started going to a learning centre but stopped in the same year. My body had changed, and I didn’t feel comfortable being in the same room with boys anymore. Madam came and told us that starting this year the learning centre has a separate class for girls. My mother liked this new arrangement and allowed me to resume my studies,”
says 13-year-old Rajuma from Camp 17.
UNICEF is also working with the community to mobilize female Rohingya chaperones to accompany girls to and from the learning centres.
Classes in UNICEF-supported learning centres are run by one Bangladeshi teacher from the host community and one Burmese language instructor from the Rohingya community.
There is evidence of the positive effects of female teachers on improving girls’ learning. Given the shortage of qualified teachers among the Rohingya refugees, recruiting and training new female teachers, as well as continuing the professional development of existing teachers, are priorities for UNICEF.
“We put a lot of effort and resources to prioritize girls’ safety, protection and learning. The issue is multi-layered, and we need to consider cultural factors and initiate education activities that are accepted and supported by the Rohingya community,” explains Dr. Ezatullah Majeed, Chief of the UNICEF Field Office in Cox’s Bazar.
Support from the community is vital
To ensure lasting change, it is vital to involve members of the community.
UNICEF has not only mobilized hundreds of Rohingya volunteers to speak to their neighbours and friends about the importance of educating girls, it has also enlisted the help of 300 religious leaders. Armed with a megaphone, they are often seen walking through the camps spreading the message that all girls have the right to go to school to build a better future for themselves.
Such efforts are transforming the lives of girls like Nurkolima.
"I didn't send my daughter to a learning centre before. Now I understand the importance of studying. It’s too late for me but I want a good future for my girl. She needs to be a good student, so that she can become a teacher, or find any other job,” Rahima now says.
“Boys learn, why can’t girls do the same? It’s good for them.”
Nurkolima is now enrolled in a UNICEF-supported learning centre and has started studying the Myanmar curriculum. Seeing opportunities open up for her daughter has caused Rahima to reflect on her own life. After being married off so young, she got pregnant and never had a chance to study. It is one of her biggest regrets.
“If I could study when I was young, I would be a teacher now, earning money for my family. I did not know any better back then,” Rahima says.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.