SHEDDER REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia, November 1 (UNHCR) – Seventeen-year-old Hodan's eyes sparkle with joy as she clutches her new English-Somali dictionary – a congratulatory gift from UNHCR on passing a national high school exam.
She's one of 35 teenage refugee girls in Shedder and Awbare camps, near Jijiga in north-east Ethiopia, who recently passed the national exam to make it into Grade 11. An impressive 85 per cent of Hodan's classmates passed, triumphing over hardships that usually hold girls back in her traditional Somali society – and in the refugee camp she has called home for the last three years.
"I have to help my mother," says Hodan. "I spend most of my time cooking, taking care of my brothers and sisters, cleaning our place. There is no time to do my homework during the daytime." When she does have time to study after finishing her chores, "it is already dark and there is no electricity in the camp."
Undaunted, Hodan adds: "Sometimes I get up at two in the morning and light a candle to read my textbooks and write exercises."
Against odds like those, fewer than 20 per cent of teenage girls were attending schools in the three refugee camps in Jijiga that host more than 41,000 Somali refugees. That was before UNHCR launched a special programme at the beginning of this year aimed at getting more girls to attend and stay in school. Since then female attendance has soared to 32 per cent.
Even though education is free, families still struggle to pay for uniforms, books and supplies. If they have to make a choice, they educate their sons rather than their daughters.
With support from the United Nations Foundation, the UN refugee agency began putting more books into refugee camp school libraries and hiring women teachers as role models and mentors. Girls got their own space in the schools where they could spend their breaks and do schoolwork.
Even better bathrooms made a difference in boosting girls' attendance and classroom performance. In Shedder Camp, all 28 of the Grade 10 girls who sat for the national examination passed, and 75 out of the 76 male students.
Another important ingredient of success was convincing parents and the rest of the community of the importance of educating girls. "We want to encourage more girls to continue studies," says Agnes Mukantwali, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Jijiga.
Hodan, who fled the embattled Somali capital, Mogadishu, lives with her mother and five younger brothers and sisters. She says girls are often forced to drop out of school to get married at a tender age – often because desperately poor parents need the dowry money the daughters attract.
"I am not yet married and hope to be able to complete the secondary school first," says Hodan.
Mukantwali agrees that girls' education is essential. "If educated, refugee girls can change the life of the entire community – not only in the refugee camps, but also when they return to Somalia one day," she says. "These girls are the future of Somalia."
The education project is now giving solar lanterns to all boys and girls in both camps in Grade 4 and above. For Hodan, it's a chance to study, do homework and read – even after the sun has gone down.
"My dream is to get a scholarship and go to university to study computer sciences," she says. "Can you imagine a Somali female information technologies specialist? I want to prove that it is possible. I can do it."
By Natalia Prokopchuk in Shedder Refugee Camp, Ethiopia
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