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School access a challenge for girls at camps in northern Uganda

UNICEF Image: Uganda: School access a challenge for girls
© UNICEF/2006/Sekandi
In Uganda’s camps for the displaced, learning is a challenge – especially for girls who are the hardest hit.

By David McKenzie

The government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have resumed talks in Juba, Southern Sudan, to end the 20-year insurgency that has left over 1 million displaced. Here is the first of a two-part special report about the impact of the conflict on Ugandan girls’ right to education.

PABBO CAMP, Acholi Region, Uganda, 19 December 2006 – Christine Lawil remembers vividly the day that the LRA came to her village near Pawel, Uganda. “My husband was working in our garden and the rebels attacked the village,” she says. “They beat him and then killed him.”

The lives of Christine and her three daughters were in tatters. They travelled the 30 km to Pabbo, a desolate and sprawling camp for internal refugees. They have stayed here for the last five years.

1.6 million displaced

The decades-long conflict in northern Uganda is considered one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. Humanitarian agencies talk of silent emergencies. This human catastrophe has registered barely a whisper.

But the numbers alone speak volumes. There are 1.6 million displaced people living in over 200 camps across northern Uganda. Children and women comprise 80 per cent of the displaced.

All the hallmarks of a stable society have disappeared here. Sanitation is abysmal, and health facilities minimal. The areas surrounding Pabbo are empty and farms lie fallow, so food needs to be brought in by aid agencies. 

Learning despite the odds

But perhaps the biggest impact is on the girls.

Ms. Lawil’s oldest daughter, Katherine, lives in fear of Pabbo Camp. “There are many problems in the camp,” says the 15-year-old. “There are problems of the boys harassing girls and raping them.”

In her crisp pink-and-blue uniform, Katherine walks past the idle men in the alleyways of Pabbo that double as streams of sewage. Anecdotal testimonies suggest that rape is endemic here.

UNICEF Image: Uganda: Girl's education
© UNICEF/2006/Sekandi
Uganda’s Acholi Region has suffered two decades of war. Thousands displaced by conflict live under harsh conditions at Pabbo Camp.

But despite the odds, the girls are learning. At Olinga School 6, several displaced schools were collapsed into one host facility. The classrooms are overcrowded, but the chatter is cheerful.

“I like mathematics,” says Katherine, “I want to stay in school so that I can know how to manage my future.”

Why girls drop out

The collapse of the social structure has put pressure on families. Girls become wives as young as age 12, leaving school in the process. They also often drop out when they reach puberty. Many schools here don’t have separate sanitation facilities for girls and they are embarrassed to continue. 

At Olinga, however, the classroom noise is punctuated by the small construction site where a team is building latrines for the girls.

Ms. Lawil will probably not be able to afford to send Katherine to secondary school, as the costs are prohibitive. UNICEF and other groups are now pushing for the costs to be brought down to help ensure that all children, and especially girls, finish their schooling.

Since a historic truce was signed between the LRA and the Ugandan Government in August, there are signs of improvement in the Acholi Region. There have been virtually no reports of abductions, and a trickle of people are starting to return home.

Ms. Lawil and her family are desperate to leave and if the brittle peace holds, perhaps they can. “There is no good life in the camp, especially for the children,” she says. “I pray to go back home.”

Peace and development

The second Millennium Development Goal target is to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education.

Unlike other goals, the second development goal was supposed to be met by 2005, not 2015. In Pabbo Camp and other parts of Uganda, this goal hasn’t been met. Worldwide, recent statistics show that for every 100 boys out of school, there are still 117 girls in the same situation.

Like UNICEF globally, UNICEF Uganda is committed to promoting gender equity in education. The country promotes early childhood development sites and provides school books and education material throughout northern Uganda. Numerous efforts are under way to keep the children of Uganda protected.

But long-lasting peace would have the biggest impact of all.




19 December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent David McKenzie reports on poor access to education and other challenges facing girls in Uganda’s camps for the displaced.
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