Forming into words the trauma and suffering endured by refugee women living in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement was, in my mind, a near-impossible task. But here we were, two Canadians sitting in a community church held together by four mud walls and a tarp, speaking to an audience of fifty-or-so women to ask the question: Why are girls leaving school at such a young age?
It is appalling to hear of refugees lacking access to secondary or tertiary level education. It is even more disturbing to learn that most of these victims are young women who withdraw in the first few years of schooling due to child marriage, early pregnancy or the lack of female health education. As a student, reading about these challenges from a textbook or publication could lull even the most passionate of advocates to sleep, but being confronted by a room of women begging and praying for change to occur, was a completely different experience.
I have often been asked why we scrutinize the issues faced by women and girls living in refugee camps. Surely, boys and men face similar hardships. True, the needs of both groups are equally important, but the issues faced by men are not the same as women. Gender affects every stage of the refugee journey, from reception to solution implementation. If issues surrounding early pregnancy or the menstrual cycle are not articulated on a global stage, who will be there to help millions of young girls facing these day-to-day problems? Who will be there to provide rape survivors with post-trauma counselling or tell women facing domestic abuse that they have a network of support? These issues not only need to be changed, but they also need to be heard.
A favourite memory of mine was during one of our first few discussions. A refugee woman stood up from her chair to explain to us, “if there is no place where girls can see the future, they do not know that there is something ahead or that they can have opportunities,” which ignited a round of applause from the rest of the group. Meeting the women and men living in Block 10 was a totally different experience from what I had imagined. I was taken aback by how willing everyone was to share their stories on fleeing South Sudan and re-settling in the Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement. They were even more excited about the idea of discussing current issues and problems faced by young girls in the camp.
After leading three discussions on girls’ education, consisting of two groups of women and one group of men, it was evident that these refugees were set on improving the future. Girls’ education extends further than just acquiring knowledge. By ensuring that a girl has equal access to education, employment and adequate health care, the benefits are passed on to her children, her community and, evidently, her country.
As we sat in a circle, I couldn’t help but marvel at the resilience and strength in the room. Many of the refugees had seen or experienced the aftermath of children leaving school and were outraged by the outcome. I could hear the hurt and anger in their voices. They wanted to be heard. After all the trauma and suffering that had been endured, here they were, fighting as strong as ever for equality and equal opportunity. It was not only an eye-opening experience but a humbling one.
I would like to acknowledge the support and willingness of all the participants who shared their stories with us. Also, these conversations wouldn’t have been made possible without the assistance of Miriam who helped translate each of our discussions and, as she liked to put it, “rallied the troops”. Also, thank you to the rest of the support from the TWSB team—what an amazing experience!