Eighteen-year-old Chuol Nyakoach lives in the Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp in Gambella, Ethiopia. Chuol is grateful that despite the trauma she has already experienced in her young life, she is able to continue her education in the refugee camp. Learning has given her a reason to wake up every day.
"My life has changed and ECW's [Education Cannot Wait] education has given me something to look forward to every day in my life. In the future, I hope that I will be able to help my community and my country using the knowledge that I am gaining now in my education while a refugee," Chuol told IPS.
The Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp is the largest in the area, comprising some 82,000 South Sudanese refugees, many of whom fled their homes in South Sudan after the escalating conflict in 2016 forced thousands to cross into Ethiopia through the Pagak, Akobo and Burbiey border points.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 68 percent of those who live there are children and adolescents under the age of 18, who need to continue their education.
"I really appreciate all that has been done in support of refugee children like us. Because of ECW's work we have been able to receive education for almost two years now in a safe environment," Chuol told IPS.
Education for children in a crisis
A three-year Education Cannot Wait (ECW) initiative was announced in February 2020, which aims to help provide education to 746,000 children, addressing the specific challenges holding back access to the quality education of children and adolescents in communities left furthest behind due to violence, drought, displacement, and other crises. ECW is the world's first global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises.
A year after launching the $165 million initiative, ECW's funding has helped provide education to 140,000 pre-primary, primary and secondary refugee school children -- 38 percent of whom are girls -- in the Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regions through the construction and rehabilitation of school infrastructure, provision of grants, supply of teaching, learning and play material, and training and recruitment of teachers.
This April, ECW also announced an additional $1 million in emergency education grant financing to benefit 20,000 children and youth impacted by the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the country's Tigray region, where an estimated 1.4 million girls and boys are deprived of their right to an education.
Thousands of schools have been closed due to violence in Tigray with many being occupied by displaced families. This comes after nine months during which 26 million students were forced out of school because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The 12-month ECW grant will be implemented by UNICEF, in collaboration with Ethiopia's Ministry of Education, Save the Children and local civil societies, targeting 2,000 pre-primary, 12,000 primary and 6,000 secondary school learners, as well as 250 teaching personnel. Overall, 52 percent of beneficiaries are girls and 10 percent are children with disabilities.
"Without the safety and protection of continued education during the crisis, girls face increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, early pregnancies, child marriage and other atrocities. Boys are exposed to being recruited into armed groups and some are forced into child labor. Without immediate support, they risk never returning to school, and their future will be lost," said Yasmine Sherif, ECW Director.
Education eases the trauma of refugee children
Chuol believes the continuous learning that girls and boys like her are getting has helped many refugee children like her cope with the trauma they have experienced.
"ECW's work had changed not just me and other refugee children, but the entire refugee community.
"It has enabled child refugees to forget about what happened to them in their home countries, to put the trauma of their experiences behind them and gain some skills," says Chuol.
Shumye Molla, acting head of the education programme at UNICEF Ethiopia, told IPS why continuing education has been crucial in the lives of crisis-affected children.
"Many children are happy to be in school and learning. Moreover, school provides an environment for them to play, socialise and develop life skills to improve livelihoods. For uprooted children, education provides them with the knowledge and skills to unlock their potential for a better future," Molla told IPS.
She added that where uprooted children share education services like schools, sports and play activities, "education provides a unique opportunity for them to forge social relationships with children from host communities, which enhances coexistence and integration."
"Schools and other learning institutions serve as entry points for other services including nutrition and health, which support holistic growth and development for uprooted children. In a nutshell, education offers a safe haven for crisis-affected children," Molla said.
Providing targeted support for girls
ECW's funding provides targeted support for the most vulnerable children, including girls and children with disabilities.
Based on their social norms, some refugee communities do not value girls' education. Despite interventions by other protection practitioners, refugee and displaced girls are still subject to female genital mutilation, child marriage and early pregnancy. In addition, households still prioritise boys' education over girls', and hold back girls at home to attend to domestic chores.
ECW's support is making a difference in helping to protect girls and increase their school attendance.
"Adolescent girls' have particularly been appreciative of the additional latrines and menstrual hygiene management rooms constructed in their schools through ECW funding. The privacy these facilities provide has boosted their dignity and confidence and encouraged them to attend school more regularly," said Molla.
ECW's support to refugee girls extends well beyond the classroom, with partners implementing social mobilisation drives, educating communities and education practitioners on the importance of sending and supporting girls to remain in school and perform better.
The fund says that because of these interventions, girls' enrolment increased by an incredible 21,422 girls - from 82,040 in 2016-17 to 103,462 in 2019-20 - in the Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regions.
Pioneering integration of refugee education into national systems
ECW works with local partners, including the Ministry of Education and the government agency for refugee protection and intervention, the Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA), to further develop the delivery of education to refugee children in Ethiopia within the framework of an inclusive national education system.
This includes extending national systems into refugee education including inspection and supervision, refugee teacher training and provision of grants, as well as helping the Ministry of Education collect, analyse, and publish refugee education data alongside host community schools to help in planning refugee children's schooling.
ECW's partners say that the group's investments in the country have been vital in helping improve refugee children's education opportunities.
"What ECW is doing is absolutely unique. Usually, when families are displaced in an emergency situation, it is health and food that is provided as aid priorities, and education is always last. But ECW, in all situations, no matter what, tries to provide education to give kids hope," Alemsalam Fekadu, senior education programme manager at Save the Children in Ethiopia, told IPS.
He added that projects his organisation was working on with ECW, such as distributing sanitary products to internally displaced girls at schools, were "simple, but have incredible impact."
"These kinds of things make a massive difference. They not only help keep girls' school attendance up, as many of them would have missed school otherwise, but they also raise the girls' self-esteem enormously," said Fekadu.
It's a success because children are eager to learn
But perhaps the clearest example of the success the ECW programme has had is in the positive experiences of the refugee children and youth who have been helped.
Twenty-year-old Wie Chut also fled his home in South Sudan and, like Chuol, lives in the Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp.
Chut believes he has received a better education here in the camp than he did at home in South Sudan.
"There, we did not get any real materials, we just went to school. Here, we get educational materials and learn more and develop skills and a positive attitude.
"We want to keep learning because education is powerful for the human mind and pushes children forward," he told IPS.
Chuol agrees: "I see that most of the students are eager to learn as well as improve their academic performance and are committed to creating a better future for themselves."