To mark the launch of our new strategy to reach 150,000 children by 2025, we have created a series of ‘Strategy Spotlight’ blogs to take you on a deeper dive into each of our strategic commitments and bring you, our valued supporters, closer to our work.
Working in collaboration with community-based organisations has always been a critical part of our work. We recognise that our partners and the local communities hold the knowledge and expertise when it comes to creating solutions. Through them, our proximity to the community makes us well-positioned to co-design the best solutions to meet the complex needs of children. But to ensure that our programmes tackle the root causes and are able to create a long-term impact we ensure that our programming is informed by data and evidence collected with the children and communities we work with.
Uganda is home to over 1.5million refugees, with almost 500,000 of them from the DRC where they have fled violence and conflict. More than two-thirds of refugees are women or children. Many of them arrive after experiencing multiple complex traumas, having fled their home in search of safety. In Kyaaka II, where we work with our partner AWYAD, there are 136,841 refugees and just 15 schools for the 50,000 primary-aged school children there.
Our partnership with AWYAD in 2019 started with a single conversation with the Director at the time, Ritah Nansereko. Ritah described how the education system in Uganda’s refugee settlements were desperately inadequate and did not meet the needs of children, especially girls and children experiencing disabilities. Without access to education, children are not just unable to learn, they are at increased risk of violence, sexual abuse, child marriage and exploitation. We knew it was critical to provide these children with support, safety and education.
To understand how best to address the problem, we started by conducting a ‘needs assessment’ to get a better understanding of the issues that prevent children experiencing disabilities from enrolling and succeeding at school; Was it a lack of access ramps for children using wheelchairs? Perhaps the families of children with disabilities could not afford the cost of school materials? Perhaps there was a completely unexpected barrier unique to the refugees that live here.
The report made some stark findings:
- 9% of children aged 5-17 had a disability – above the national average of 7% – but in schools, only 2% of learners had a disability, with the rate falling in upper grades, implying children dropping out earlier.
- The most common domain of functional disability was behavioural: with 16% and 15% of children reporting a disabling level of anxiety and depression, respectively.
- 44% of children had either a disability or a risk of developmental delay
The data collected showed that the top 3 barriers identified by parents of children with disabilities were:
- Schools are too far away or not physically accessible due to a lack of assistive devices (crutches, wheelchairs etc.). Children with physical disabilities who are unable to walk often had to rely on their parents to carry them over long distances.
- The rations given to families in the settlements are barely enough to cover food costs. Faced with the choice of feeding their children or buying them a school uniform, families simply had no resources to spend on scholastic materials.
- Schools lacked capacity and staff who were trained in inclusive education or how to make learning accessible for children with special educational needs. Of the 278 teachers surveyed, only 7 had any knowledge in this area.
Evidence such as this is critical in not just understanding the root of the problem, but also in leveraging support from funders who often need to know the extent of the problem and see how our solutions are grounded in the local communities and the expertise of our partners.
We were careful to ensure that we asked as many girls with disabilities as possible, in recognition of the fact that people with various overlapping identities (girl, child, refugee, social class, having a disability) experience different barriers to education. For example, girls experiencing disabilities are significantly more likely than either a) girls without disabilities or b) boys with disabilities, to be a survivor of abuse or sexual exploitation. While there was no significant difference in the prevalence of disability between boys and girls, far fewer girls with disabilities are found in school. While 60% of girls went to primary school, this drops to just 44% in secondary with difficulties with menstruation among the factors cited as the cause of this drop.
After the initial Needs Assessment, we sat down with AWYAD to discuss how we could best tackle the problem based on the evidence collected. We looked at each of the barriers in turn and created solutions that would increase enrolment and retention of children experiencing disabilities, with a specific focus on girls who it was clear were most at risk of dropping out:
To reduce the distance for children with disabilities, assistive devices were provided such as wheelchairs and hearing aids
To tackle families’ lack of funds for scholastic materials we took a two-pronged approach; to begin with, we provided families with books, uniforms and all the materials their children would need at school. But to ensure that families were able to support their children’s education in the long term, parents were given the option to take out start-up loans for small businesses through the establishment of Village Loan Savings Associations run in the local community. With the support and as a part of a peer saving group, parents are able to increase long-term income and savings.
To improve special needs education in schools, we rolled out our Learning Support Assistants (LSA) programme. LSAs are comparable to Teaching Assistants in the UK and can provide one-to-one support to children at school, proven in many contexts to improve educational outcomes for marginalized learners. LSAs are currently being trained, alongside teachers, to increase their capacity in inclusive education practices. This is a critical part of the programme as it ensures that the classroom becomes an accessible and welcoming environment for all children and the many different styles of learning they have.
We knew that many girls were dropping out of secondary school due to period poverty. A lack of access to sanitary materials meant that girls were unable to go to school and were at risk of leaving education completely. To tackle this we ensure that girls who need menstrual kits receive them are able to continue learning whilst having a period.
The last point I will mention here is the inclusion of a counsellor to support children experiencing trauma, depression and anxiety. Ultimately, counselling cannot redress the structural violence of poverty at the root of most mental ill health, but being a refugee himself, he was well equipped to identify the struggles of children in his community.
We know that truly sustainable change can only be achieved by engaging existing community structures, such as Child Protection Committees who are often the first responders to cases of abuse, so disability inclusion & gender-based violence training was included.
It is impossible not to mention the impact of the pandemic during this process. Schools were shut for almost 2 years, during which approximately 600,000 teenage girls in Uganda are thought to have become pregnant. In Kyaaka II, the standard ration received by every refugee was cut to just 13,000 UGX (~£2.80) per month. Many families forced their daughters into early marriage in exchange for a bridal dowry. The pandemic pushed at-risk children into further vulnerable situations, creating an even greater need for the EQUAL programme. We made sure that the impact of Covid-19 and the additional challenges refugee communities were facing were included in our project design.
EQUAL – Ensuring Quality Education for All – started in September 2021.
Tragically, Ritah Nansereko the director of AWYAD and a global force for advocacy on locally-led humanitarian aid passed away in July 2021. It was a privilege to work with her and the successes of the EQUAL project are a small part of her tremendous legacy.
So far 557 girls and 331 children experiencing disabilities have already been enrolled in school, and the project baseline survey confirmed that we are reaching the most marginalised households: 75% of them earned less than 100,000 UGX (£22.50) per month.
We are periodically measuring the progress of the project towards outcomes to make sure that newly enrolled girls and children with disabilities feel safe at school, are being supported well by newly trained teachers and LSAs, and ultimately succeed in graduating to the next year of school.
In 2024 we will survey teachers, local government officials and the surrounding community to detect whether the EQUAL project has influenced long-term attitudes and practices.