Addressing Gender Inequalities in African Refugee Education

Creating a university in a refugee camp was wrought with challenges: unreliable electricity and internet connectivity, lack of technological infrastructure, language gaps, skill gaps, security concerns, more.

December 7, 2016

In 2015, Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) College for America partnered with Kepler to launch Africa’s first university campus in a refugee camp offering fully accredited U.S. Bachelor’s degrees to camp residents.

The SNHU & Kepler’s first campus was established in Kigali in 2013. As one might imagine, creating a university campus in a refugee camp was wrought with challenges: unreliable electricity and internet connectivity, lack of technological infrastructure, language gaps, skill gaps, security concerns, and general organizational challenges. To call the challenges in the camp daunting would be an understatement, and the first admissions effort made it painfully clear that gender equity was another problem we faced.  

Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, there are significant problems with the participation of women. In Kigali, an affirmative action based admissions process produced a 50/50 male-female split. This is particularly important in a country where just a third of the students accepted to public tertiary education are female, only 22% of them enroll, and roughly 9% graduate. Yet, 98% of women who enrolled in the first SNHU bachelor’s degree program are on track to graduate within four years. 

However, in Kiziba, a gender-based affirmative action admissions process proved impossible—the test scores of the applicants were so low that even including 7 women in the first class of 27 was risky; the English levels were so low it wasn’t clear whether they could make it through the program.

The problem in Kiziba is typical of gender disparities elsewhere on the continent; it is estimated that over 90 million women are illiterate[i]. In Rwanda, there are only 6 girls for every 10 boys in secondary school. These differences become further exacerbated as young Rwandan women move from secondary to tertiary education. Yet the enrollment and successful completion of higher levels of education for women is essential to the economic growth of a low-income country like Rwanda.

The program starkly underscored the gender gap. A meeting with potential students left staff staring at a sea of male faces and only 7 women; it became all too clear that dramatic intervention was needed.

In addition to other challenges the program operated with limited funds, stretched-thin staff, and the endless problems of creating a campus in a refugee camp. Worse still, the program faced a tight timeframe. The intervention needed to be culturally appropriate, quickly designed and implemented, low-tech, and highly effective in order to achieve results in the first year. In response, two pre-enrollment preparation programs were launched.

The first program was established in the Kiziba refugee camp on SNHU & Kepler’s second campus. It was for women only and enrolled 26 students. The program operated 5 days a week in the camp. The second was in a second refugee camp in northern Rwanda, that also served Congolese refugees. This program enrolled 19 students, mostly men. Both programs were run by students in the SNHU & Kepler Kigali program.

The programs were, for the most part, designed and run by the students. They had initial meetings to understand the admissions test, obtain and review materials, and plan lessons. There were also regular “check-ins” with SNHU staff on the progress of the program and the students, and to solve problems collaboratively. The student program instructors were given latitude and freedom to design a program that would enable their students to succeed on the admissions test. This served three purposes: 1) it ensured that the program was culturally appropriate, given the cultural similarities between Rwandans and Eastern Congolese refugees residing in Rwanda, 2) it provided students with role models and helped them to appreciate the significance of earning a degree, and 3) it developed leadership and critical thinking skills among the SNHU & Kepler Kigali students as they assumed primary responsibility for the preparation program.

Thanks to funding from the IKEA Foundation, there was about $5,000 allocated to the preparation programs. A key takeaway from this experience was that while the problems of gender equity are serious in Sub-Saharan Africa, they are surmountable with low-cost, carefully planned interventions. In fact, as the second cohort of SNHU & Kepler students entered the Kiziba refugee camp campus, there was an equal number of men and women across the two cohorts, given than a majority of the students accepted this year were female.

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions by comparing programs, but their differences do give some insights for future preparation programs. The fact that there were fewer students admitted from the weekend program in northern Rwanda suggests that meeting 5 days a week is actually necessary. The admission rates from the two programs may also indicate that different teachers yield different rates of success. But perhaps one of the biggest takeaways was that, in this context and for this type of program, a program for women only was very successful. Conversations with women in the program and the women instructors revealed that they felt immense stress and sensed scrutiny from the community. Several women in the program were discouraged from going to class and told they didn’t have the intellect to make it into the program. They were also chided and told that they received special treatment that meant that their admission wouldn’t be earned on their own merit. The SNHU & Kepler Kigali instructors pleaded to change participation to a mixed-gender program after suffering daily harassment from men in the camp. Daily social pressure made it quite difficult for the women instructors and the female students in the program. So, while the programs have been successful, success wasn’t achieved without pain.

On examining the two programs, it is clear how important running a single-gender preparation class was in empowering women to pursue a university education. In the mixed gender program, only 21% of the students enrolled were female. In the end, none of them were accepted to the program.  The success of the women-only program is evident in the table below


Admissions Statistics for Kiziba Women-Only Pilot Prep Program



Gender – Female


26 out of 26

Accepted to Kigali Campus


5 out of 26

Accepted to Kiziba Campus


16 out of 26

Kiziba Prep "Success" Rate


21 out of 26


There are several things to consider when planning future programs. These include improving the curriculum, providing a community of support for instructors, continuing to work with residents in the camp to ensure better understanding of single-sex programming, and ensuring balanced support for both host country residents and refugees. Clearly, there are low-cost interventions that can lead to significant improvements in access and success for women. And, if these programs can work in the challenging environment of a refugee camp, they can likely work and have an even greater impact elsewhere on the continent. 


[i] World Bank. (2013). World development report 2014: Risk and opportunity—managing risk for development. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi: 10.1596/978-0-8213-9903–3.

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Chrystina Russell

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