Gendered experiences of educational migrant returnees during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published 25 November 2020 / By Chiedza Mutsaka Skyum

Back to Articles

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum. This article is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “The future of educational migration

When the whole world is working and studying from home in their bedrooms and living rooms, the once-clear lines between private/personal and public/professional become blurred. What was once perceived as an anomaly – for instance in 2017, when a BBC interviewee’s children ran into the background of his news interview – is now becoming the norm. This article explores some of these factors and how students from the African Leadership University (ALU) in Rwanda have learned to navigate and negotiate their way to balancing studies and family obligations.

ALU is based in Kigali, Rwanda with students from over 40 countries around Africa. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ALU had no choice but to encourage students to return to their home countries. It was declared that there would be no interruption to the students’ learning as classes would continue online.

However, in addition to issues with internet connection, bandwidth, access to tech and remoteness of some of the students’ homes, other societal barriers hindered some students from being able to continue with their classes. A survey completed by forty second-year students in mid-September 2020 showed that 92% of the students claim to have family obligations and roles/tasks that they are obliged to do giving them less time to focus on their studies than if they were on campus in Kigali.

Gender inequality in education is already a chronic and persistent issue in many African states, and even though much progress is being made in providing access and reducing drop-out rates of girls, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have taken some students a few steps backwards. In many societies, girls and women are responsible for doing the majority of childcare and domestic work. Early on, teachers like myself began to receive emails from students who could not dedicate the needed time to their classes. One female student from Kenya had multiple siblings who needed home-schooling since schools were closed. Another female student’s father was forced out of his job so her mother became a vendor and she in turn cooked and cleaned for the entire household. Then there was the female student caring for her ill grandmother in palliative care. These inquiries led me to write this article. Would these students be experiencing the same if they were of another gender? To what extent is the education of a male child prioritised over the education of a female child today?

Seventy percent of surveyed students listed often ‘gendered’ domestic duties like cooking, cleaning and laundry as the majority of the work required of them. Childcare and home-schooling of younger siblings is the second most time-consuming task. A student from Côte d’Ivoire commented, ‘in my tradition, women have to cook and do all the work at home while men do nothing because they are men and they are not allowed to do anything at home apart from study and pray’. A male Nigerian student said, ‘I am aware that more is required of my sisters at home, but I have to work with my dad – the hours are the same but the tasks are different’.

It became evident in the survey that those male students that had no female siblings did not experience the same, as they were the ones who were expected to complete the needed household tasks. Female students with brothers had the most to say in the comments sections, as they made comparisons, ‘I cannot sit down expecting my brothers to do the cooking or other housework’. A Rwandan student said, ‘I live in a family of a lot of boys so I’m expected to do the housework because apparently boys in my house can’t cook or do stuff if there’s a girl around’. Family expectations and the de-prioritisation of young women’s education is a harsh side effect of the pandemic for these students.

When asked if she believed that the tasks assigned to them had anything to do with gender, one student from Sierra Leone highlighted another cultural aspect – age. ‘My chores are tied to the fact that I am the youngest in the family...when you are the youngest, you get to do the chores and it is affecting me so much.’ A Ghanaian student did not see a gendered element in her household tasks, ‘There is nothing to do with my gender in regards to the obligations. My brother also works as much.’

To adjust themselves to their new normal, the majority of survey respondents said that communicating their schedules to their families and including family tasks on the schedules has aided in easing the pressure.

Empathy is the word of the year at ALU as lecturers who are facilitating online classes have learned that personalised empathetic approaches to student concerns and struggles are best for their learning journeys and most effective for their success. In these tough times, easing the pressure on deadlines, allowing for more flexibility and providing multiple pathways for students to engage with class content have helped ALU students to feel seen, heard and understood.

​About the author: Chiedza Mutsaka Skyum is a researcher and educator in the field of migration. Chiedza has been in forced migration for years and now, since working at this multinational pan-African institution with students from up to seventeen African countries in one classroom, her interest in education migration has grown. Recently she has been getting her feet wet in educational migration.

Blog header Image: Malaso Nkoiboo, ALU student © ALU 2020