- Women activists are making an impact in the Lugufu refugee camp in western Tanzania. Information work has raised the refugee girls' school attendance to 90 percent and now, the problems of early marriage and domestic violence are addressed among the Congolese refugee society.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR reports of substantial progress from the Lugufu refugee camp. Kiza Mpondamali, a middle-aged Congolese woman in camp, has "led a spirited drive to fight discrimination against women and girls and to push parents to send their daughters to school," the UN agency says.
Today, one year after Ms Mpondamali started her campaign, more than 90 percent of Lugufu's school-aged refugee children - girls and boys - attend schools in the camp. But the efforts to give the girls an equal quality education do not stop there.
In Lugufu, as in many other refugee camps across Africa, school enrolment among girls declines steadily as they move into the higher grades, UNHCR reports. "Many drop out of school to get married while others are kept at home by families who need them for domestic chores and to look after younger siblings."
According to students at one of the camp's schools, too many of the girls routinely miss school and when they do turn up, they are exhausted after long hours of domestic work and sleep through the lessons. At fifteen, most girls are already married and some already have their own children to take care of.
This year, therefore, Ms Mpondamali and her team have dedicated their efforts to trying to keep refugee girls in school. "If a girl is absent from school, we follow up," she told UNHCR. "If she leaves school to get married, we talk with the girl and her parents."
The problem of early marriage and pregnancy continues to push many girls out of school. At the same time, the UN agency reports, there is a more general problem in the camps. "While the school enrolment campaign has encouraged more refugee children, particularly girls, to attend school, the camp's schools cannot cope with the extra demand." The teacher-to-student ratio is reported to be 1:100, in some cases.
The women activists led by Ms Mpondamali do not stop at securing the Congolese refugee girls a better education. They have also focused on the life conditions for the camp's many married women, who, to a large degree are victims of domestic violence.
The team has talked to the refugee community about the problem, encouraging women to report cases of domestic violence and to seek help from counsellors in the camp. "More reports of wife abuse have subsequently emerged," UNHCR confirms.
A 16-day campaign against domestic violence is now to go ahead in the camp, corresponding with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, celebrated tomorrow. The campaign's mobilisers - among them dancers and drummers - are to craft songs on the campaign theme while the camp's drama group is to perform plays and skits to drive home the message.
Ms Mpondamali says the increase in reported cases of wife abuse is a good sign. "The community is prepared to acknowledge that there is a problem and are coming forward to report," she told UNCHR. However, "to change [the behaviour of] an individual in an hour is difficult," she adds, referring to the often hour-long sessions held in dozens of venues in Lugufu camp.
The expansive Lugufu camp was set up in 1997 to give refuge to the thousands of Congolese who had fled the conflict in the Kivu region of eastern Congo Kinshasa (DRC). According to the UN agency running the camp, the current refugee population numbers some 91,642 Congolese men, women and children. Ms Mpondamali and her team are making sure that this "medium-sized Congolese town" can produce some progress while waiting for better times in the DRC.
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