What the Boys and Men of Dadaab Can Do to Bring Greater Equality for Girls and Women
By Mohammed Abdull Adam
Mohammed Abdull Adam grew up in refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya. Now a third-year political science student at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada, here is his view on what men and boys need to change for women and girls to access their right to an education.
Dadaab, Kenya, 2000 - 2004
The sun's morning light shines unimpeded onto the sticks, worn-out clothes and tarpaulin roof that make up my shack house, with its faded United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) label. It is only 5:00AM, and yet the sun's insistent heat already makes going back to sleep impossible. I get quickly out of bed, with a sarong wrapped around my body and tucked away at my waist, and head towards the door. The door of my room doesn’t open or close easily. I have to put a hand on the lock stile and gently lift up the bottom rail to either close or open it. The hinges are made of a worn-out sandal, which makes moving the door a challenge even once it's unlocked.
By the time I manage to open the door, the morning tea we use for serving anjera (an eastern African traditional dish made of mixed wheat and corn flour with water) is ready. Today is Sunday and that means I have no school and since I am now too old to go to dugsi (Quran classes). I jump over the fence and go to the playground to play soccer with friends who, by the time I join in, have already been in the field for almost an hour. As I approach them, I hear my sister calling to me: “I am doing some laundry”. Her voice fades out, until I hear her again, “I'm happy to help with your laundry, but you have got to get it out from your room”.
Once the soccer game ends, I come back home and breakfast is ready, the laundry is done and every container in our simple house is filled with warm water. I grab a clean plate, some food and sit on a stool at the porch sipping tea and eating. My mom, sitting under one of the trees next to our porch, starts the conversation. “How is school?” she asks. While using her mouth to hold the colored sisal she is using to weave a mat, she asks, “When are you going to finish school?” Busy chewing, I quickly respond, “One more year, and I am done. I don’t know what I will do though after school, mom.” I say that with hopelessness. But with determination in her eyes, she says, “Keep working hard my son,” and with a reassuring look she continues. “One day, our beautiful country will be peaceful. Son, you will be among those who will help re-build the nation. You will get a good job with income to support yourself, your family and us.” Like so many times before, I feel my heart warm at my mother's steadfast hope and vision for the future.
Victoria, BC, Canada , March 2015
But nowadays, I think back to those conversations and wonder how my sister felt as my mother affirmed my dreams? And what of the other girls who sat quietly and listened while their brothers talked of the world education was opening up for them? After all, they too once attended school. In fact, in the elementary school I attended, up to grade five the number of girls to boys was equal. In some classes, there were more girls than boys, and the prizes awarded to students with good grades (books, pencils and erasers) most often went to girls. Sadly, all this ended in grade six. The number of girls got fewer and fewer and those that remained were no longer able to excel as they did in the earlier grades. By the eighth grade, in a class of approximately 94 students, the ratio of boys to girls who graduated and went on to high school was 24 to 2.
Two arguments are typically put forward to explain this disparity between boys and girls. One argument is that it is traditional within my community not to be as supportive of girls’ education and to give preference to boys. The other argument is that the education system needs fixing in order to respond to the particular needs of girls in Dadaab refugee camps and provide more services and resources to encourage girls’ education. As much as these arguments are undoubtedly true, I would like to shift the focus by asking what boys or young men like me could do to address these disparities. Having lived in Dadaab camps for more than two decades, having been a teacher there during some of this time, and having reflected on these experiences since, I would like to share my thoughts on what I could have done, or what young men and boys in Dadaab refugee camps could do now, to improve the ratio of girls to boys in school and reduce the gap between girls and boys accessing education and getting opportunities to continue their studies.
Do you remember how I said that as soon as I woke up I headed to the playing field, came back to eat food, and got help with my laundry? All this work, and countless other domestic tasks that benefited me, my brother and my father, was carried out by either my younger sister or mother. You may wonder if I am generalizing unfairly and projecting my family’s experience onto others - unfortunately not. I graduated from high school with 48 young men and each of them probably had a sister or many. Did we ever ask ourselves, “Where are our sisters? Why haven’t they come to high school?” I know some of my friends' sisters were very bright and used to lead our class in every term. We all know where they ended up - drowning in the seas of domestic labour, barely having time to study or work towards their dream of achieving education like their brothers.
Every school girl in Dadaab camps spends an average of 40 hours doing domestic work every. A typical day for a girl in Hagadera high school or grade eighth goes like this: she wakes up 4.00am in the morning, chops firewood, makes breakfast and without doing anything else, it is already 7.00am. She heads to school (it probably takes an hour to walk there) and classes start at 8.30am. In the afternoon she prepares dinner and after serving it to everyone in the family it is already 9pm. For security and other reasons, she can’t go to a neighbour’s place to use a lamp or get helped with her schoolwork. That girl may have a brother. If he gets up at 4.00 in the morning, he has three or four hours to prepare for school. At night after eating he can go over to his friend's place or go to the school to study for another four or five hours. He gets 25 to 30 hours of study time a week. This is one of the main causes of disparity and why I couldn’t see the faces of my girl classmates past grades three, four or five. In Dadaab, as I ran out the door to play soccer in the mornings, I never stopped to share responsibilities for domestic work so that my sister could study.
But the burden of domestic work is not the only issue for girls. I recall a conversation I once had with a dear friend. I asked her to share her biggest challenge of going to school in Dadaab camps. She said, “I was the only girl in a class with 50 young men. Can you imagine?” I couldn’t imagine, and at the time I didn’t see that as an issue. Now it haunts me. Three years ago, when I first came to Victoria, often I would walk aimlessly just for the hope of seeing or accidentally meeting a black person to lessen the intense absence of belonging I felt in a white society. And when I started attending classes at the University of Victoria, I would sometimes be the only black person in a class of 60 students; my friend's experience would come flooding back to me. Aha! Finding myself in an environment where nobody valued or understood my political struggle really helped me understand the injustice of my friend's experience and her sense of alienation at school.
Because I wish I had done things differently, I say this now: let us be our sisters’ allies; let us be in solidarity with women, young women and girls; let us challenge patriarchy and the unearned privileges it gives us; let us end the disparity between boys and girls in terms of accessing education. This is a grass-roots problem; it needs a community-based solution.
Let history be a great lesson for us to do things better and be good allies to our sisters in Dadaab refugee camps. Let us ask them what we can do to help. Let us share books, light and what's been taught to us. Let us include our sisters in our study groups, and, above all, work to provide safer spaces in school - classes where young women can be who they want be and share their ideas and thoughts. Let us show them through our actions that we are equal human beings; that if they hurt we all hurt and if they prosper we all prosper.
If we want things to be different for our sisters, let us acknowledge that we have responsibilities as privileged young men and boys in Dadaab refugee camps to share the domestic workload with our sisters. If resources are given to the girls in Dadaab refugee camps but they don’t have the time they need to do their schoolwork, such resources will be just hal baacad lagu lisay (milking your camel on a sand dune). Men have to make their own food, do their laundry and clean up the house for us to be a more equal and just society.
The wheels are turning, thanks to the outstanding, amazing, and hardworking women who have toiled up the cliff path of refugee life, challenged patriarchy and proved that anything is possible. They are my heroes, truly great role models of what it really means to be persistent in striving for what you want to achieve. Against all odds they stayed in school, and worked to inspire their fellow women. Let us celebrate these women, and acknowledge their great work aimed at addressing the disparity of girls and boys in terms of education in the refugee camps. Let us fight the unjust treatment of our sisters that deny them opportunities that we take for granted. Unshared domestic work is an injustice that benefits men every day, robs our sisters of the same hopes and dreams we have, and reduces their numbers in our schools, colleges and universities. Our sisters' dreams belong to them. We must stop taking them to privilege ourselves. Let's get to work.