Every morning as she scrubbed the floors and boiled potatoes in the crowded orphanage where she grew up, Victoria daydreamed about going to school again.
She was just six years old when she left South Sudan after a series of family tragedies. “My mother was struck by lightning and died when I was four. My father was a bad man and he was killed the next year.” She doesn’t know exactly what happened to him.
After their deaths Victoria stayed with her older sister, who was herself only 12 at the time and struggled to take care of them both.
A nun offered to take her to an orphanage in Kampala. She didn’t know where it was but she was soon on a bus on her way to Uganda.
At first the orphanage supported her to go to primary school, but she had to drop out before she could finish. She bursts into tears at the memory.
“Every day I worked by cooking food, washing clothes, cleaning and looking after the younger children. But none of it was paid, so I couldn’t afford to pay the school fees to continue.”
Although Uganda introduced Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997, theoretically making it free for all children to attend school, in reality schools struggle for funds and continue to charge additional fees which can make it prohibitive for the poorest children.
“I watched other children going to school and doing their homework and it made me cry,” she says.
Last year, as she turned 18, Victoria told the orphanage she wanted to leave. Her elder sister was among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into Uganda to escape the violent conflict in South Sudan. She heard her sister had arrived in Palorinya, a sprawling settlement a few miles inside Uganda that is now home to more than 100,000 refugees.
For Victoria the reunion in Palorinya meant not only seeing her sister again for the first time in 12 years; it meant she could finally return to school. “I was so happy! As soon as possible the neighbours registered me to start the new school year.”
Victoria enrolled in Save the Children’s Accelerated Education Programme (AEP), which is specially designed for older children who had to drop out of primary school. Using flexible, age-appropriate teaching and a condensed curriculum that can cover the seven years of primary education in just three years, it helps pupils aged between 10 and 18 complete the primary leavers’ exam (PLE) and get official certification. Without the PLE certificate, employment opportunities in Uganda are extremely limited.
“Education is so important to have a good future,” says Victoria, who particularly likes reading and writing English, one of the four languages she speaks.
For Victoria, getting her primary certification is the next step towards her ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer or judge. After her childhood experiences she hopes to use her education to protect children’s rights. “I want to be a judge to stop people who do bad things and are cruel to children.”
The AEP is part of the innovative “INCLUDE” programme, which is implemented by a consortium of NGO partners – Save the Children, Finn Church Aid, Norwegian Refugee Council and War Child Holland – thanks to European Union humanitarian funding.
The programme is piloting new approaches such as using solar-powered tablets loaded with interactive software to promote literacy and numeracy. “I hadn’t used anything like it before!” says Victoria. “It’s fun but really useful to teach you how to read and count.”
“I love the way of teaching at the school. I don’t have money to buy books but here I can get them for free. They also give us sanitary pads to help us stay in school.” For many adolescent girls the lack of sanitary pads and facilities is a major cause of dropping out of education.
Another approach is called ‘Team Up,’ which uses structured play, games and team activities to provide children with psychosocial support.
“It teaches you how to forget your problems at home,” Victoria says. “When I was younger I used to run and do athletics like the high jump and long jump. Exercise is so important for us. Education makes me feel better.”