Uganda: I want to stay in school (Part II)
17 May 2018

As the student representative, Joyce welcomed Fr Tom Smolich SJ, the International director of JRS, to Pagirinya Secondary School (JRS)

A few years ago, there were no secondary schools for refugees in Pagirinya and, although Uganda’s progressive refugee regime allows refugee children to attend any school anywhere in the country, most refugee parents could not afford the tuition fees. Many secondary school-age children were spending their days idle in the settlements, raising the specter of youth delinquency. So, the parents felt they needed to find a solution.

The solution, Pagirinya Secondary School, was born two years ago, as a community initiative led by parents and a few dedicated teachers. The parents  did not even have space for the school when they started, so they negotiated with a primary school in the area to let them share their facilities. Subsequently, the local community donated a piece of land adjacent to the settlement and a few classrooms were constructed with some funding from the UNHCR. At the moment, only the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)  is supporting the school. The parents contribute whatever they can to support the school, but this is like a drop in the ocean. Since January 2018, JRS has been supporting the community through the payment of some of the teachers’ salaries.

The community shoulders most of the responsibility of running the school, yet it is clear that they cannot cope. Joyce says that there is no land for cultivation in the settlement and the parents are struggling to feed their families. They also do not have any money because work opportunities are scarce. So, running a school is a herculean task. The teachers are working hard in the hope that their performance and determination will convince the local government to step in and offer more support. But until then, the community is on their own and the little support JRS currently provides is nowhere near enough.

The school currently has over 800 students and this number is expected to rise to about 1000 within the year because of the continued influx of refugees from South Sudan. “We are unable to take in more students because we do not have space,”says Geoffrey, the school’s deputy head-teacher.

“But if we do not take them, where else will they go?” He grimly points to a small cardboard in the teachers’ room, the size of a file cabinet, containing about a dozen textbooks and says, “That is our library!”.

The list of needs is endless. They need more classroom space to accommodate the rising enrolment numbers as more people arrive from South Sudan. They need a proper library with enough textbooks and a science laboratory because practice is mandatory to pass the national exam. And the teachers need to be paid. Although the community has shown incredible resourcefulness thus far, a lot more support is needed to maintain the school above water and ensure it meets the needs of the community reasonably well.

To keep girls like Joyce in school, there is need to engage with the cultural biases that underpin the exclusion of women. Success in this area, however, is likely to remain elusive unless these efforts are complemented with investments in education with a view to increasing access and improving quality. Without education these girls have no future.

“If you drop out of school before you finish your studies, you will get a lot of suffering.”With this simple and yet indisputable piece of wisdom, Joyce sums it all up. Women’s empowerment is through education and, without it, society as a whole is built on sand.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the Pagirinya Secondary School in Uganda's northern Adjumani district.
Read part 1 here: I want to stay in school (Part I)

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