Against all odds: Why refugee girls stay in school

09 January 2023 by Faithy Ngaira

Faiza, a 19-year-old refugee girl from Somalia, was one of the brightest students in her secondary school. She is among the top 10% of students who sat for the Kenya Secondary School Examination (KCSE) in 2022. She is one of her parents’ nine children who arrived in the Dadaab refugee camps, when she was just 10 years old, fleeing the Somali conflict.

In the displacement context, adolescent girls like Faiza are the most affected when it comes to school participation. Barriers to girls’ education multiply in conflict, making them the most marginalised when it comes to school access and persistence. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) stresses that refugee girls are only half as likely to enroll and keep a place in the classroom compared to their male counterparts.

Girls face restrictions that disengage them from school such as increased demands and burdens i.e. household chores, forced early marriages and concerns about safety in the community. Faiza described some of the challenges she encountered:

“My community believes girls going to school is a bad idea. So, whenever they saw me go to school, they used to say, you must remain home. You must assist your mother in the kitchen. They threatened to marry me at some point, but I used to be firm with my dream. They used to tell my father that this lady had grown up. We don’t believe girls should go to school. Sometimes when I am revising at home, and a visitor comes, they would tell me, ‘Why are you making yourself so busy and stressed? You are a lady’. I used to feel bad, and sometimes, when I saw someone coming, I hid my books under the mattress, but I never took their word.”

Despite the many challenges and unclear futures refugee girls face, many, like Faiza, are motivated to continue attending secondary school.

Girls' high attrition rates are a common feature in the Dadaab refugee schools. Despite the odds that girls have to face to remain in school, there are a few who have done this and who have progressed from one Grade to the next. 68.5% of girls enrolled as beneficiaries of the programme in 2018 when in Form 1 stayed on and completed their secondary level of education in March 2022.

It is against this backdrop that WUSC was keen to examine factors that motivate those refugee girls who have proven resilient to remain in school. The study focuses on girls in the Dadaab complex, one of the largest refugee camps in Africa located in Northern Kenya near the Kenya-Somali border. Faiza and nine other girls participated in the study, conducted in June 2022. The girls in the study are beneficiaries of the Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP), implemented by World University Service Canada (WUSC) and supported by UK aid through the Girls’ Education Challenge.

Using semi-structured interviews, girls described their stories and experiences. The interviews focused on questions about their school and home-related structures and personal reasons that motivated them to stay in secondary school.

WUSC aims to create conditions for learning that will allow approximately 20,673 marginalised girls from Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps and the surrounding host communities to improve learning and transition outcomes. KEEP's key interventions include cash transfers, remedial classes, scholarships, school upgrades, life skills camps, safeguarding and provision for girls, guidance and counseling, teacher trainings, Eneza (E learning platform/app), out-of-school girls’ support, Board of Management/Parents Association trainings (training of school management committees) and community outreach through Engaging Men and Boys (EMB) activities, radio and film. The intent is that the incentive of the scholarships would be sufficient to encourage families to keep their girls in secondary school and use the resources to take care of the girls' needs.

Secondary school scholarship was identified as an important incentive; with scholarships, refugee girls can continue their education without having to choose between school fees and family financial needs. Since parents and guardians do not have the financial capacity to support their education, scholarships have been instrumental in helping refugee girls continue their education. Notably, this finding is true for girls who persist in school. It does not reflect why girls who dropped out of school did so despite being given full scholarships.

The possibility that success in secondary education could serve as a pathway towards being awarded a scholarship through WUSC’s Student Refugee Program (SRP) is another key incentive.*

Strong, inspiring teachers who encourage and support academically are critical drivers of motivation for students from camp settings. To these girls, the teachers are inspiring role models and motivators encouraging them to remain committed to their education. Teachers’ and peers accepting of their background as refugees, religious beliefs and practices help develop a ‘sense of belonging’ for these girls. Teachers are seen as essential in establishing inclusive and supportive environments in the schools, meeting the academic and socioemotional needs of the girls.

Parental involvement means creating a nurturing environment conducive of learning. Providing emotional and academic support, reducing the burden of domestic chores, and being invested in their daughter’s academic performance. If the support from a primary care giver is there, girls have the motivation to remain dedicated and succeed in education. For many girls a great encouragement is seeing their parents, especially mother, seeing their success as a pathway for financial independence and social mobility for the family, something not traditionally linked with women in the Somali community. The possibility for a shift in intra-household and community dynamics, is one reason for girls to persevere and succeed in school.

Every child aspires to be seen as a ‘somebody in society’, and refugee girls are no different. The desire to be a doctor, social workers, lawyer, teacher, and to have society and the world value them. They expressed the desire to educate society (the Somali community) about harmful practices toward girls, like forced early marriage, female genital mutilation, and other retrogressive beliefs. These girls live on the fringes of society in refugee camps, the motivation they have to persevere and succeed in education comes from the hope to better the lives of their families and their communities, and to be valued by others.


*The SRP programme is a university scholarship and resettlement programme, whereby refugee students receive academic scholarships to attend Canadian universities, as well as a pathway to receiving Canadian citizenship. Other girls who were successful in this and are now resettled in Canada through the WUSC-SRP programme are excellent role models and motivate parents to invest in their daughters’ education as much as the boys.


I appreciate the study support and guidance provided by Rachel Parks, the placement advisor at the University of Edinburgh, as well as the constructive criticism provided by Timothy Kinoti and Pauline Anyona at WUSC. Ideas expressed in this blog are based on the literature review of refugee education and findings from the study. All errors and omissions are my own.