Return to School
Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed all of our lives in complex ways. Research shows that when a disaster hits, women and girls are some of the most vulnerable and highly affected, and this has proven true during the pandemic as well. Millions of women and girls have left the workforce due to their caregiving responsibilities, while many millions more have been forced into more unstable or precarious work to support their families. Based on the research and learnings from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, it was clear that girls, in particular, would be highly affected by school closures, but we didn’t anticipate just how long school closures would last, and the extent of the damage that would be caused by this pandemic.
In Kenya, where WUSC has been working for over 40 years, girls and young women became even more vulnerable during the pandemic because their safe space – the school – was closed. The Population Council highlighted that nearly 97% of learners in Kenya indicated challenges accessing learning materials during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of adolescents in Kenya reported experiencing symptoms related to depression. Across the country, 16% of girls and 8% of boys did not return to school when they reopened in January 2021.
In Kalobeyei Settlement, Kakuma Refugee Camp, and surrounding host communities where the Learning through Education and Access to Skills for Employment (LEAP) project is being implemented, the combination of high levels of poverty, reduced access to services, refugee status, and overcrowded and under-resourced educational services means that these vulnerabilities were even more extreme. The International Rescue Committee reported a threefold increase in early pregnancies among adolescent girls in these areas, compared to the same time period before the COVID-19 pandemic. Adolescent girls who became pregnant struggled with “idleness, lack of money in households, peer pressure, exposure to violence and difficulty accessing family planning services,” and almost all girls who became pregnant during this period indicated that their pregnancies were not planned. Many expressed that they were feeling “ashamed” and “uncomfortable” around their peers, while most were likely to discontinue their studies or fail to concentrate in class.
Empowering our girls also means safeguarding their present
In this challenging context, WUSC adapted our programs to support the vulnerable refugee girls and young women who we work with, facilitating access to radio-based education programs and cash transfers to support families and reduce the risks of early marriage for girls.
When schools reopened in Kalobeyei and Kakuma, WUSC was able to better understand how cash transfers supported girls during a challenging period and increased the likelihood that girls would return to school. Data from one of WUSC’s projects* in Kakuma showed that girls who received cash transfers throughout the school closure period returned to school much more quickly than girls who hadn’t: attendance was 10% higher for girls who had received cash transfers than for those who did not. 87% of girls who received cash transfers reported back to school immediately. Despite the fact that girls in our context face such a complex range of challenges, this is a 3% improvement as compared to the national percentage of girls who did not return to school. Families reported that they used the cash transfers to:
- Support access to learning, such as paying for private tuition, revision materials, or uniforms (35% of families);
- Purchase food, clothes, and other necessary personal items (33%); and
- Ensure that girls had access to sanitary wear and were able to purchase personal protective equipment such as masks, and medicine (17%)
However, data collection conducted by the LEAP project team demonstrated that early pregnancy was still a critical issue of concern across our project context. Head Teachers shared the critical importance of following up with girls who dropped out since school closures during the pandemic, and working with them and their families to bring them back to school and retain them in their studies.
“…let me begin by saying due to the long break caused by COVID, from my school there are 26 girls who have not come back to school due to early pregnancies.”
It is clear that, although cash transfers have made a difference in the lives of many adolescent girls and young women in our programming, more needs to be done. In response to the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on the livelihoods and well-being of girls and young women, WUSC is implementing a new approach to community engagement to put girls and young women at the heart of our initiative. We will use the power of peer support to reach out to young mothers and pregnant adolescents within the community and the school, providing them with a safe place to share their needs and aspirations. If they are in school, we will provide them with tools to stand up for what they need to stay in, and succeed in school. If they are out of school, we will help them negotiate with their families to ensure they have the support needed to go back to school, and to feel comfortable with themselves to stand up to any potential shame or stigma they may experience. This community engagement work will also dig into critical discussions with girls and their families about sexual and reproductive health rights, sexual and gender based violence, and reducing stigma against young mothers.
We want to help girls and young women recognize their own rights, power, and agency, and use their skills to make a better future for themselves. When girls and young women step into their power, and when their families and communities recognize and acknowledge their rights and agency, nothing can stop them.
WUSC thanks Global Affairs Canada for their generous support of the LEAP project. The LEAP project (2019-2024) will foster conditions for the empowerment of over 6,500 refugee and host community girls in northern Kenya through high quality educational services, the provision of market-driven skills training, and robust community engagement. This initiative would not be possible without the support of Global Affairs Canada.
* This data is from the KEEP (Kenya Equity in Education Project), which operates in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps and their surrounding host communities. This data is highly comparable to the LEAP project context, given that both projects work in Kakuma Refugee Camp and the surrounding host community.