Effects of school closure  in refugee communities

Pupils attend a lesson in a refugee camp. With the pandemic schools were closed down leaving such pupils stranded. Photo | Promise Twinamukye

What you need to know:

  • The pandemic and consequent closure of schools took away the semblance of normalcy refugee children had become used to in their communities.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic affected many in different ways, those in  refugee settlements were hit the worst since they were already living in difficult conditions.  

According to the Covid-19 bi-monthly update by UNHCR of July 2020, an analysis on the impact of the pandemic on refugee education was undertaken by The Education in Emergencies Sector Working Group, co-chaired by the Ministry of Education and Sports, UNHCR and Finn Church Aid, primary and secondary school going children had missed 60 per cent of the 840 hours of education for term one since March.

For a people whose livelihoods were disrupted, David Onen of Refugee Law Project, says life is ideally more about survival than education. “Food is a priority in any of these refugee homes so they cannot afford to sacrifice feeding the family in the name of getting batteries to power the radio,” he says.

Onen notes that schools are important in this community and before Covid-19, Uganda was progressing steadily with government ensuring that children stay in school at least at primary and secondary level although early childhood education was lacking. Therefore, the lockdown brought with it a set of new challenges including: 

Teenage pregnancies and forced marriages
Apart from being learning centres, schools enabled girls to stay in school which delayed childhood marriages and teenage pregnancies. 

“It also helped boys not develop negative coping mechanisms. Granted, a lot of it would happen during holidays but at least, a great percentage of girls stayed in school. Schools also eased the work of keeping an eye on the children for parents,” says Onen.

With Covid-19, several measures were put in place but the stay at home directive did not mean staying indoors but within the facility. “Owing to proximity which overrides the good will of diligence, people got familiar with one another and developed social interactions. As such, cases of girls raped by relatives and friends arose; within a span of four months, there were more than 800 cases of teenage pregnancies,” Onen says. 

However, in refugee settlements, there were cases of forced marriages because parents were struggling to provide for their households. “Some would send their girls to stay with uncles, relatives and even strangers who in turn would marry them off in return for some food. Trafficking also took place as some girls were moved to Kampala as housemaids,” he notes. 

The report indicated that in Palorinya settlement (Obongi District), child protection cases rose to 39 between March and June from eight between January and March. 

Loss of psycho-social support
For every 10 women that reported to have suffered abuse during insurgences, Onen says, four say their children witnessed it. 

“Seeing your mother being raped or father sodomised, and other heinous acts creates a legacy of violence among the children through emotional trauma. As such, teachers, using their educational psychology helped to avail such families with basic psycho-social support. Children stayed in school for long hours which kept their mind off things that haunt them without resorting to drugs and alcohol,” Onen says.

However, with Covid-19, that support was taken away, aggravating the fact that being a refugee is already difficult enough. 
“Even with work resuming in these centres, you will find that many who were attending counselling services have totally relapsed,” he adds.

Nutritional and scholastic help
Robert Hakiza, the co-founder of Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), says children received lots of support such as scholastic materials, and nutrition from schools which parents were unable to provide directly. 
“A child was assured of a meal because they went to school and had some learning materials hence less pressure on the parents,” says Hakiza.

But with Covid-19, televised teaching was introduced which was not practical for people in these centres. “For example, Adjumani’s Maji 1 and Maji 2 centres barely have cellular connection for a simple phone call. So radio and TV in a place off the national grid was impossible, something they only heard was happening in Kampala and other cities,” he says. 

The UNHCR Covid-19 July response shared that while Ministry Of  Education and Sports included refugees in the national education response plan, self-learning material by the ministry only reached 20 per cent of learners nationally. 

Therefore, UNHCR alongside National Curriculum Development Centre provided more than 368,000 self study materials to learners and nearly 39,000 parents received packages for early learning material.  Plan International, according to their website, also came up with a solution for the Rhino and Bidibidi settlements. 

“We developed study material from guidelines by MOES, and to ensure children receive the self-study materials, we distributed them door-to-door with the help of parents, teachers and other community leaders. The plan is for teachers, as soon as schools open, to collect the books for marking,” states the report.

 Very few had access to radio and these, Hakiza says, demanded for books, batteries, pens and the like. “This caused bitterness among the parents and quarrels ensued because the burden that was once shared is now solely on them,” Hakiza notes. An Inter-agency rapid gender analysis report commissioned by UNHCR shared that 40 per cent of the children lacked study materials and stopped learning altogether. 

While these lessons were given, with no teacher-child relationship, it became a parent-child relationship where children went to parents or guardians for help with their homework. 

“However, in these refugee homes, most parents are illiterate or semi-illiterate and could therefore be of little help with their children’s schoolwork. Some of these parents were themselves in the process of attending adult classes. As such, many children were discouraged from studying seeing that their parents were not any  better. The parents were frustrated by their helplessness and sometimes took out their  frustration on their children,” Onen says. 

Menstrual hygiene crisis
In some schools, girls got sanitary towels but now parents have to provide. “Those who had relied on school provision found themselves being forced to improvise. These challenges were felt even more in homes where men are the only breadwinners and child-headed homes,” Hakiza shares. 

Increase in abuse
Schools also served the purpose of monitoring, documenting and reporting abuses against children using attendance lists. These helped the authorities know who was absent in order to investigate why they were absent and reported cases of abuse, if any. This buffer was removed by the lockdown of schools.
“Schools create a safer environment because there are rules and regulations.  It also reduces chances of students from being exposed to dangerous situations,” Christina Zetlmeisl, the Deputy Country Director of Jesuit Refugee Services Uganda shares.

 Onen adds that children struggled as there was no one checking on them or identifying any arising crimes: “This is closely connected to access to justice for abuse against children as teachers took on the whistle blower role to alert humanitarian actors who would alert rule of law actors hence come in to render justice. Even when found, police did not want to risk detaining them because they could not test them for the coronavirus. So, while the general crime reduced as people were locked down, domestic violence escalated, yet some of the perpetrators were family members.”

Healthcare challenges
Some children used to get some basic health care from schools as some had health centres so an emergency was easily addressed. The senior woman would also advise them on various issues, while some schools also gave mosquito nets.

But with the lockdown, Hakiza says, one could not call for a vehicle to transport a child suffering with malaria to hospital because permission was needed. “The distance from the available hospitals outside the school setting are also far off. For example, Adjumani District is 65km from Maji ll Health Centre . To access services, one needed transport or go to a private clinic at a cost. Yet, these services were previously free,” he notes.