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  • One in four schools in Syria has been attacked by the Syrian government or by opposition groups, and attendance rates have been reported to be as low at 6 percent in some areas, while rates of enrollment for Syrian refugees range from 52–65 percent in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
  • Low overall enrollment rates, a gender gap for education in combat zones that keeps 2.5 times as many girls out of schools, and regressive Islamic State policies on education mean that Syrian girls are at an increased risk of child marriage.
  • Despite the dire economic, human rights, and security implications of a “lost generation,” the international community’s commitments to universal enrollment have fallen woefully short of goals in February 2016.

Overall Situation

With over 2.8 million internally displaced children, average rates of enrollment for Syrian children have dropped to an estimated 60 percent as of June 2016. Comparative enrollment rates for boys and girls are not available for Syria, but studies show that in conflict zones girls are 2.5 times more likely than boys to be out of school. Another 4.8 million people have fled the country, four out of five of whom are women and children, yet fewer than 27 percent of refugee girls receive the critical educational support they need, thus excluding 1.6 million girls in 2015 alone. At the university level, though the Syrian government published figures alleging that more people are enrolled in higher education in Syria than in prewar years, and half of those enrolled are women, outside sources place enrollment at a quarter of its previous rate and the male-to-female ratio at nearly 3:1. In the countries hosting the greatest number of Syrian refugees—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—refugee enrollment in universities ranges from 2–8 percent.

Despite international development programs that aim to educate Syrian children inside the country and in refugee camps, underfunding, such as the $220 million gap affecting UNICEF programs as of June 2017, threatens these efforts. Lack of investment in education will cost Syria an estimated $2.18 billion as the generation currently missing out on necessary schooling enters a competitive labor market.


In the three decades leading up to the conflict, Syrian education made dramatic gains, nearly doubling literacy rates between 1981 and 2011. Compulsory education of at least nine years for both male and female students was mandated by Law No. 35 in 1981 and Law No. 32 in 2002, and was accompanied by an allocation of more than five percent of GDP to education. With these measures, primary school enrollment rates before the war ranged from 94–98 percent, with near gender parity. In higher education, enrollment rates stood at 26 percent for both genders from urban backgrounds and at 17 percent and 15 percent for rural men and women, respectively.

With the widespread destruction of schools and their alternate use as shelters and military bases, the quality and accessibility of those remaining varies widely. Even in relatively stable areas controlled by the Syrian government, complaints of overcrowding, inadequate security, and poor infrastructure plague schools, while contested areas are often dangerous, requiring students to pass through areas of active conflict to get to class or exams. The Syrian government reported in 2015 that enrollment in higher education had increased by more than 190,000 students since 2010, yet national education budget cuts, the rising cost of living, and the flight of thousands of teachers has led to harsh criticism of the government’s reports on these figures.

Those regions controlled by Islamic State or other extremist groups follow a sharia-based curriculum that actively targets girls, encouraging subservience and early marriage. Persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that while both men and women were deterred from attending school in these areas, the impact on women was compounded by additional clothing and movement restrictions, as well as greater threats to health and safety from rape or kidnap. The Islamic State outlined its vision for women’s education in “Women of the Islamic State,” a manifesto from the all-female al-Khanssaa Brigade, discouraging women from attending university to “prove that her intelligence is greater than a man’s” and advocating for a religious and domestic-based curriculum and marriage by age 16.

For Syrian refugees, enrollment rates vary across host countries but remain low as students face barriers to education. In Lebanon, 48 percent of refugee children and 95 percent of refugee youth ages 15–24 are not enrolled in formal education. In Jordan, 65 percent of students were offcially enrolled in 2016, while Turkey reached a refugee enrollment rate of 60 percent in 2017. Across these three countries, financial barriers, lack of legal status or papers, host-school overcrowding, and violent bullying from local children were repeatedly mentioned as obstacles to education. As of 2015, an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 Syrian refugees were eligible for university, yet enrollment has remained low, in large part because of financial concerns and missing academic documents: less than two percent of refugees in Turkey are participating in tertiary education, eight percent in Jordan, and six percent in Lebanon, while numbers of refugees given scholarships to study in Europe or the United States are negligible.

Policy Implications and Challenges

Such concerns have led to an increase in rates of child marriage within Syria and among refugee communities. Girls married young are unlikely to ever return to school, and child marriage has repeatedly been linked to isolation, mental health issues, and decreased access to sexual and reproductive health resources. In Jordan, rates of child marriage have jumped from 12 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2014, while in Lebanon, 41 percent of displaced Syrian women are married before age 18.

As of 2015, only four percent of all humanitarian funding to Syria was dedicated to education. In February 2016, leaders and diplomats from 20 countries pledged $11 billion in response to the Syrian war, setting goals for universal refugee child enrollment by 2017, but opaque</ reporting systems make it difficult to track where that money has gone or even how much has been delivered, and refugee enrollment has remained low into 2017. Furthermore, while access to secondary education has been linked to eliminating poverty and narrowing the gender gap, the UNHCR spent three times more on primary education than on secondary education. This disparity disproportionately affects girls, especially those living in conflict zones, who are 90 percent more likely than girls in peaceful areas to be excluded from secondary education.

Without significant thought and investment in addressing the current Syrian education crisis, the country faces having a “lost generation” that poses an economic and security risk to the future of the nation. Women and girls are particularly at risk, as they face early and often unwanted marriages in the name of their own protection, which bar them from continuing their studies in both the short and long term. Failure to protect education and gender parity as a high priority will hamper reconstruction and reconciliation, which may once again leave Syria’s youth vulnerable to radicalization, perpetuating a cycle of underdevelopment and instability.

This report is part of TIMEP-News Deeply’s Syria’s Women: Policies & Perspectives partnership. It first appeared on News Deeply’s website here

Syrian Female Students Struggle with ‘Information Gap’
A major barrier for Syria’s female students – both inside and outside the country – is an ‘information gap’ that makes applying for asylum and finding education opportunities a confusing labyrinth.

ISTANBUL, Turkey – When the so-called Islamic State came to al-Bab in 2013, Wateen was preparing for her last year of secondary school. She wanted to be a pharmacist, and the first year that ISIS entered her city, she didn’t think the group would interfere in her education.

“When [ISIS] came, I was 15 years old,” she recalled. In the beginning, though, they didn’t enforce the laws that made them infamous. “They weren’t so evil – they tried to earn our love.”

Soon after ISIS took over al-Bab, Wateen said the Syrian military stepped up its bombing campaign on the city. It got to the point where if there was a day without bombing, Wateen said she would be surprised.

“There was a lot of bombing when we were going to lessons. It would be in the street, on the way, while I was going there would be bombing … but with time, with time, you can say that we got used to it.”

ISIS militants also began preventing women from attending school, which eventually led her to try to pursue her studies outside of Syria. Over the next three years, however, Wateen’s opportunities for education shrank from a regular secondary school to a small institute with just a handful of students and teachers, to nothing at all.

Syria used to be one of the most highly educated countries in the Arab world, and one of the earliest to achieve roughly equal gender parity in universities. But after six years of war, the bottom has fallen out of its education system. Inside Syria, UNICEF estimates 1.7 million students are out of school, with another 1.3 million at risk of dropping out. In neighboring countries, close to 1 million refugees are missing out on an education, despite the sums pledged by international donors in 2016 to ensure education for Syrian refugees.

While there is no gender breakdown of current enrollment in Syria, “girls are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school” in conflict zones, according to UNESCO.

Ultimately, Wateen’s education ended when she was confined to her house for two months during an intense bombing campaign on al-Bab. Although she tried to continue the scientific subjects she’d been studying, “it was impossible to improve by myself,” she said. “That was the last effort [in Syria] of mine.”

Wateen fled her home in Syria in 2016 and went to meet her fiance in Turkey, where she hoped to continue her studies. But suddenly, even in a safe country with no bombs falling, she hit another wall.

The war has put up all sorts of barriers for Syrian students, including language issues, financial burdens and problems with paperwork.

But for Syrian refugee students, before all of that, is often a stark barrier: where to find information. With confusion and distrust surrounding host governments and the plethora of aid agencies, Syrian refugees often rely on second-hand information, both for education as well as for asylum.

For women, this situation is even more severe. “Each and every refugee woman student will identify someone who made them and their future their own business, by lobbying, advocating and pushing to support and help them secure papers, documents, scholarships, living stipends, bus fare and breakfasts,” Shelley Deane, director of the Brehon Advisory consulting group, a U.K.-based company that addresses conflict-related crises in the region, told Syria Deeply over email.

The influence played by outside individuals demonstrates the weaknesses of an uncoordinated system. At the most basic level, even the definition of “refugee,” “guest,” “displaced” and “visitor” varies between host states, and not all states are signatories to the Refugee Convention. What’s more, the U.N. Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) procedures also vary between countries, according to Deane.

“Contrary to what people might think, there is no one uniform process for registration for refugees, asylum seekers or educational provisions across host states,” she said. “No one rule fits all. At any given time the rules are adapted to fit the local host community needs.”

Yet mastering this process is essential to accessing education. If a woman has a PhD but no papers, Deane said, “her position is no less precarious than a pre-literate woman with the right certificates.”

Not having documents of certification or qualification from a school “back home” is the greatest barrier for many refugee women students. However, “second to that is access to information, knowing what you qualify for or where you can seek support is dependent on the individual’s capacity.”

One Western resettlement agency worker told Syria Deeply on the condition of anonymity that she notices a difference between Syrians, who are less familiar with international bureaucracy, and refugee populations that have dealt with the system for longer. “I think in general Syrians are at a disadvantage somehow, because they are relatively new to this process and they really are not sure which direction to proceed or [with] which organization to proceed.”

She says her agency often gets faxes and calls from Syrians looking for the International Organization for Migration or UNHCR. When she asks how they got her number, the answer is often Facebook.

Part of the problem, the resettlement worker said, is how difficult it is to organize the gray zone in which Syrians operate. For example, for Syrian refugees who do not have official work permits, “if there is an organization that is supposed to help them, what are they going to tell them? ‘OK, you’re not allowed to work as a refugee.’ But then what? It’s tricky. You cannot tell them [about unofficial options].”

Finishing secondary school to be able to enroll in university outside of Syria is an equally confusing system. As a result, few of the 100,000 Syrians worldwide who are eligible for university education make it that far and even fewer are women.

Before the conflict erupted, Syrian women actually slightly outnumbered men at universities, according to some estimates. Now, in Jordan and Lebanon, fewer than 10 percent of eligible Syrian students are thought to be registered – the vast majority of them men. In Turkey, just 3 percent of some 50,000 eligible students are estimated to be enrolled in university. Of that small percentage, just 2 percent were said to be women in 2015.

When Wateen arrived in Turkey, she found out that Turkish schools required extensive language prep that she couldn’t pay for. An alternative option was to attend a temporary education center, an Arabic-language school run by international NGOs set up in Turkey at the request of the Turkish government, but she wasn’t sure if they would be accredited when she later applied to university in a medical field like pharmacy.

In 2015, when the Turkish government began administering the Syrian baccalaureate exam – the secondary school exam necessary to apply to university that Wateen had been preparing for before she left al-Bab – only 8,000 students registered in the first year.

Even if Wateen had been one of them, she would face further challenges: There may not have been enough open spots for her to pursue a university degree, or she may have been accepted at a school far from home.

When Wateen realized how difficult resuming her education in Turkey would be, she set her sights on applying for asylum elsewhere and enrolling in a university where she could work on her English. She decided on Canada and found out Ottawa accepts Syrian refugees only after they had registered for refugee status with UNHCR, which she had been told was possible to do online.

“I can’t enroll. I searched the website, but I don’t know how to use it. I strongly want to register to go [to Canada] to complete my studies,” Wateen told Syria Deeply in a conversation earlier this year.

Only later did Wateen find out that in Turkey, UNHCR could not grant Syrians refugee status. She had to find the UNHCR office, go in person to register for resettlement and then wait for her application to be recommended to Canada or a different country. It was not possible to do this online.

The challenges facing women who have completed some education in Syria have practically no overlap with obstacles facing women who, like Wateen, want to pursue university outside their home country, according to Lilah Khoja, the higher education coordinator at Karam Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable solutions for the future in Syria.

Organizations like Karam and Jusoor, an NGO focused on helping Syrian refugees continue their education abroad, aim to fill the gap funding to cover the hidden costs of Turkey’s ostensibly free education. Innovative solutions, like Kiron University, a private German-run social enterprise that provides free university education to refugees, have also worked to fill some gaps in refugee education.

But they’re not a panacea.

Sarah, a 21-year-old from Damascus now living in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, finished her baccalaureate at a temporary education center and enrolled in university. To make ends meet she took a job at an education NGO, but this means she is unable to attend her classes. Without a teacher in front of her, she said, she’s finding her social work program hard.

“I haven’t opened my email for like one month, and I don’t know what’s happened there, but they are sending me emails [saying] open your platform, you’ve got to study, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Though their challenges are varied, generally, students are able to cobble together information from each other and online, Khoja said, adding that “every student that I speak with that has been accepted into university in Turkey … [says] ‘because I’m in university, because I’ve already done the system, everyone knows that, so I help everyone that I can help.’”

“There seems to be a pronounced perception barrier, where it is not clear to women that they have an equal opportunity to access higher education,” Maya Alkateb-Chami, director of Jusoor, told Syria Deeply.

She added that after Jusoor launched a program specifically targeting female scholars, they nearly doubled their application base.

For many women like Wateen, however, not knowing how to access support has put their education on hold – perhaps permanently. She married a tailor from al-Bab shortly after she arrived in Turkey, and she’s now pregnant, staying with her family in Gaziantep until she gives birth, while her husband lives in Istanbul.

She said that, at first, her husband didn’t want to have children because of the possibility that she could still finish her studies. But she yearned for a child to fill her time, because in Istanbul she knows no one and is always alone.

“Maybe if I was busy with studies I would not think of having a kid. But because I was unable to finish my studies, that made me want a child.”