By Katie Krueger

Uganda has one of the most progressive policies on refugees in Africa, and even in the world: refugees are settled in communities, as opposed to camps, where they are provided with plots of land to cultivate, and encouraged to sell surplus produce in local markets, which are supported with aid money. This approach benefits both refugees and local residents in and around those communities. The Guardian once even asked if Uganda was the best place in the world to be a refugee, highlighting the nation’s efforts to provide better economic and social opportunities for those fleeing conflict and hardship in neighboring countries.

These progressive policies, however, do not necessarily extend to refugees who have chosen to leave these specifically designated communities – or bypassed them entirely – to live in urban centers instead. Exact numbers are hard to determine, but 12% or more of the 1.8 million residents of Kampala are refugees; over 200,000 refugees live in the city, particularly in the slums of Kisenyi, Katwe, Makindye, and Masajja. (Most of them come from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); an increasing number of recent arrivals are South Sudanese.)

The experiences of refugees in Kampala, and particularly of female youth among them, illustrate how responses to displacement have improved in the past few decades, but also how far they still have to go. Progress has been made, particularly on issues of access to education and health, but much remains to be done on livelihoods, mental health, and generational transmission of trauma. To better respond to the unmet needs of urban refugees, we have to appreciate the range of diversity among refugees themselves. It remains necessary to study the differential needs of men, women, boys, and girls, and to mainstream gender in the policies and institutions that affect them, address their challenges, and serve their social health and economic needs.

Community-based small-scale farming and services provision is an intelligent way to support refugees who relied on agricultural or agro-pastoral livelihoods before displacement, although it does not necessarily address inequalities arising from gendered divisions of labour. Urban refugees, however, may have been engaged in service or manufacturing professions; they tend be better educated than their peers. This is consistent with trends in urban migration in general, where younger and better educated persons – including women and female youth – move to cities precisely because they want to pursue non-agricultural livelihoods.

For refugees who have college degrees or vocational qualifications, the most important policy that would help them earn a living is for those qualifications to be recognized in their country of refuge. Without such accreditation, they have to earn a living in occupations where their skills are underemployed. In urban settings, this usually means petty commerce – such as door-to-door sales or hawking – or labour-intensive jobs, such as laundry, tailoring, construction, hospitality, and domestic services.

The gendered impact of this situation is particularly regressive. Education is the primary means by which women are able to break out of gender-stereotypical professions, to achieve greater economic independence, and to better balance livelihoods and childcare responsibilities. When their educational qualifications are not recognized, women are forced back into those gendered professions – cooking, cleaning, sewing etc., to say nothing of commercial sex work.

These jobs also tend be informal, and often illegal; combined with language barriers, this increases women’s vulnerability to financial and/or sexual exploitation. (In a country with a 7.3% prevalence rate for HIV among adults, and a 35-37% rate among sex workers, the health risks are obvious.) Given that refugees cannot register to legally reside and work in cities, they are extremely hesitant to approach authorities; police or city officials are broadly seen as a source of exploitation as well.

There has still been crucial progress on responding to the needs of urban refugees in Kampala. Education has been a key focus area, with various innovative solutions being adopted to ensure children are able to receive some form of schooling. These measures have also been linked to efforts to address malnutrition, improve social-emotional health, and ensure that the resulting qualifications are accepted by Uganda’s mainstream education system.

Recent statistics also suggest both enrolment and attendance rates for boys and girls in primary school are nearly equal – barely 1% apart! The gender gap starts to become more evident in secondary education, and the number of girls (all girls, let alone refugee girls) in tertiary education are vanishingly small. In other words, even as progress has been made on primary education, the education–employment–empowerment pipeline does not seem to be working for girls.

How many people does this affect? The short answer is that we don’t know. The last available statistics suggest as many as 30% of refugees in Kampala are single mothers, often with multiple children, whose husbands are either deceased, missing, or displaced elsewhere and unable to join them. Even those numbers, however, are largely compiled when children access education and health/nutrition services, or when women try to access livelihoods support programming (such as microfinance or women’s cooperative groups). Childless female youth hardly feature in the data at all, as a combination of cultural and logistical constraints make it difficult for enumerators to have access to them, or even to records about them through formal service providers.

In other words, girls and mothers tend to be counted and supported to some extent, while male youth are typically the focus of other kinds of programming (employment, PVE/CVE, and so on.) Female youth, to whom these labels do not apply, tend to fall through the cracks – they do not currently appear to be a priority segment of the population for most kinds of development aid, and may also limit their own interactions with authorities as a self-protection strategy. Unless local and national authorities and international agencies are specifically trained to recognize and respond to their needs, this group will likely remain among the most vulnerable and underserved among all displaced populations, and particularly at risk of trafficking or coercion into sex work.

WI-HER, LLC is an economically and socially disadvantaged, women-owned small business in the Washington, DC area that focuses on gender and social inclusion in international development programming. WI-HER, LLC has worked in Africa, including Uganda, and throughout the world to promote gender and social inclusion in various sectors including health, education, rule of law, and the energy sector. WI-HER believes that addressing the gender-specific needs of women, men, girls, and boys is vital to closing gaps in health, social, and development objectives internationally. For more information, please see our website or email today.