Uganda hosts the largest number of refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa, and its welcoming refugee policies are mirrored in the passion and hospitality of its people. However, a surging population has put a significant strain on schools and teachers.
Ongoing conflict in neighboring countries has sent refugees fleeing across the borders for decades, and these numbers have swelled in recent years. In just the Arua District of Uganda, a rural area bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, there are over 200,000 refugees.
In January 2019, I traveled there to research the wellbeing of female teachers as part of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Women Lead practicum program. There are approximately 4,000 teachers serving nearly 300,000 students in the region’s government-run schools, and the student to teacher ratios are worse near the refugee camps.
We went to the Rhino Refugee Resettlement Camp, where there are as many as 200 students in a typical classroom. School supplies are scarce, food is limited, and teachers are weary. Both male and female teachers struggle to manage such large classrooms and their own needs often go unmet. These challenges are even more pronounced for female teachers.
Challenges encountered by female teachers
Like many countries around the world, women in Uganda are responsible for a majority of the household work, from chores to childcare, even when they work outside of the home. Female teachers often struggle with the dueling responsibilities that come with balancing their personal and professional lives.
When basic needs go unmet, women suffer greatly. When schools lack feeding programs, for example, female teachers are expected to return home in the middle of the day to cook for their families, while many male teachers go home to an already prepared meal by their wives. When schools lack childcare, female teachers are expected to find someone to take care of their younger children during the day, or simply stop teaching when they start having children. When schools lack single-sex restrooms, female teachers often miss school while they are menstruating.
The needs were staggering, but the teachers were passionate. Despite the challenges they faced and the added difficulties that the women experienced because of their gender, I don’t think I met a single teacher who didn’t passionately advocate for their profession.
One of these educators, Miremba*, grew up in a small village in northern Uganda where girls rarely complete their education past the sixth grade, but she wanted to pursue a different life. Today, she is a teacher in Arua Town and a mother of two girls who are in college. She has overcome enormous barriers to obtain an education and become a teacher in a country that often values men over women.
Miremba has taught in Arua for more than 20 years and has seen many teachers leave for better paying professions. However, she sees a great responsibility to provide an education to the children who are the future of her country.
“Many have left teaching, but I look at the future of our children. If I don’t teach them, who will? Through education, I can transfer what was given to me to others,” she said.
Teaching from their own experience
Despite the resource challenges and the sheer number of students to teach, nearly all the teachers we surveyed emphatically agreed that educating refugee children is the moral thing to do.
Uganda itself has a history of conflict. Some of the older teachers remember being refugees themselves when they were forced to flee their homes for the DRC border.
Gladys is the principal of the Arua Primary Teacher College, where teachers are trained before being assigned to a school. She grew up as a refugee in the DRC, but since returning to Uganda as an adult, she has used her own experience as a refugee to understand and help those who are now in her own country.
“We are using our own experience to understand these people and help them,” Gladys said.
Gladys and Miremba are only two of many inspiring women that we met who are dedicated to educating their country’s younger generations. They are also women who have overcome many barriers that women report confronting more regularly. As teachers, they are committed. As women, they are role models to the girls who will follow them.
The next step to better support female teachers in Uganda
Though these teachers are hardworking and committed to a better future for their students, they cannot do it alone. While our team continues to explore programmatic approaches to best support female educators in contexts like Uganda, our initial recommendations include exploring professional supports to female teachers ranging from incentives, child care, accommodation and meal provision.
*Name has been changed
Hayley Samu is studying International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and participated in a fellowship with Creative’s Education Division.