On a recent visit to the Nduta and Mtendeli refugee camps in Tanzania, I was struck by powerful first impressions: the remoteness, the dust, and the immense need of the 84,000 Burundian refugees living in the camps. I was also struck by the opportunity for progress: in services provided to refugees, in support available from the donor community, and ultimately in the impact on vulnerable people's lives.
The current Burundian crisis began over a year ago, following President Pierre Nkurunziza's unlawful claim to a third term in office and an outbreak of protests that ensued. Human rights abuses and violations have been widely reported*, including unlawful killings, torture and disappearances. In the past 16 months, well over 140,000 people have fled into neighbouring Tanzania, and tens of thousands more to Rwanda.
The need in Tanzania's refugee camps is immense. The remoteness of the camps means that almost all refugees are reliant on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs.
Girls forced out of school
In the Nduta camp, less than 1,000 students out of an eligible 8,000 are attending secondary school. Many students choose to seek out informal skills training instead of attending school, in the hope that they will be able to trade their skills or labour in the future. Other teens are the primary providers for their households and spend long hours in food distribution queues instead of attending class.
The situation isn't ideal for those students who do attend school, either. A single textbook can be shared by up to 20 students, and many school buildings are in poor condition. Students have very limited access to lighting in the camps, leaving them with no ability to study after class.
The situation is undoubtedly worst for girls, who often leave school when they are forced into early marriage. Poor sanitation is another major reason that girls are forced to drop out. Girls need reliable access to private, secure toilets in order to manage their periods at school. In the Nduta camp, there are 11,000 students but only 32 toilets, which means only 1 toilet for every 340 students. Of those students, boys outnumber girls by a ratio of 5 to 1.
Keeping children safe
Though the need is palpable, there are also amazing success stories. One of Plan International's priorities in crisis situations is ensuring that children are kept safe. Child protection is especially vital in refugee camps like the ones I visited, where children make up 65% of the population.
Child-friendly spaces are an effective way to support children in crisis or emergency situations. They provide kids with stability, consistency, companionship and education. The child-friendly spaces I saw in Nduta stood out like beacons against the backdrop of temporary canvas buildings and red, dusty ground. The child-friendly spaces are painted with bright, friendly colours and images. They are cherished spaces in an otherwise harsh and unforgiving landscape.
But what happens inside is even more amazing. Children are thrilled to attend each day. They sing, they dance, and they're able to put their worries aside. Having spoken to many people who were struggling with such diverse issues, it was heartening to see the hope and joy that these spaces were bringing to the communities they served.
Ensuring children have safe and equitable access to education is a major priority for Plan International. Schools return some normalcy to the lives of children who have been uprooted from their homes and provide a safe space for children in a refugee camp.
Girls’ education boost
While I was in Tanzania, we were able to move forward on programming that will help to meet some of the most urgent needs in these camps. We are currently developing a holistic education programme in Nduta camp to meet the urgent needs of secondary school students. This project will ensure that girls and women receive essential items like sanitary pads and will help them to manage their periods in an effort to increase girls' enrolment in school.
Textbooks will be distributed to more students, and child-friendly spaces will be retrofitted with solar-powered lights that will allow them to serve as after-hours study locations.
Despite the complexity of the issues facing Tanzania's refugee population, there is much to feel hopeful about - and a look at the thriving, bustling child-friendly spaces serves as a constant reminder.
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