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Difficulties for refugee women in accessing higher education in the region Île-de-France

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Members of the UniR community celebrate the end of the academic year. Photo by Faith Toran.

By getting an education you will be more confident, and you will know you, who you are, Rana, a young refugee mother from Bangladesh shared in an interview discussing the importance of education. For some, education is a constant battle against social norms and cultural pressures. For others, education is an escape from a life of inequalities. For the majority, education is carried across borders providing optimism for a better future.


Education is a human right, as defined by international law and as included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Access to education, however, is a long-standing issue that particularly affects minority and vulnerable populations. Globally, only 3% of the refugee population has access to higher education compared to 37% of the general population, and for women it is even less. From a gendered perspective, education for women at all levels has been proven to benefit the world by breaking cycles of poverty, narrowing disparities in child-rearing, and promoting the empowerment of women for better economic inclusion.


As part of an action research project initiated by the non-profit organization UniR Universités & Réfugié.e.s, a study involving a group of 12 participants was conducted in an effort to highlight challenges refugee women face in accessing higher education in the region Île-de-France. The initiative responds to a growing need for qualitative research that looks at individual cases, which can then be applied to the larger refugee population. Based on over 16 hours of individual interviews with refugee women from diverse backgrounds, the study highlights four major challenges in accessing higher education, including: language barriers, administrative challenges, gender inequalities, and the lack of access to personal, professional, and academic networks.


Considering that the region Île-de-France receives 46% of asylum demands in the nation, the density of newcomers have challenged regional actors at the governmental and institutional level to address the rights and needs of refugees that extend beyond immediate humanitarian assistance and focus on long-term integration. Civil society actors increasingly play a key role in mending the gap between public institutions and the real needs of refugees in the region. 

Without education, I think a person is incomplete. As a woman in this world, however modern you are, however fast you are in this age, still you can find a different look for women. You have to accept it; you can’t deny it. So, if you are educated and anyone in society knows that she is educated, she has knowledge, they will accept you at the first chance, they will not discriminate you and they will not look at you in another way, Rana continued.


Using grounded theory methodology, a type of ethnographic journey is developed as the testimonies are woven together, in conversation with one another through an in-depth analysis. Providing a unique window into the lives and experiences of refugee women, the narratives are further deconstructed through four case studies; each looking at one particular individual and one major challenge at a time. As a method for getting to the root of the challenges the women have faced, it was found that their experiences were often intersectional. This is to say they face multiple forms of marginalization and oppression as women, refugees, and students.


It was observed that language barriers and gender-related inequalities were the most dominant in hindering access to education. As tens of thousands of refugees face the challenge of learning the French language together, difficulties were often rooted in the saturation of institutions responsible for linguistic integration, limited quality of government courses, difficulties in finding courses that continue from beginner to advanced levels, and other personal challenges linked to migration, such as administrative obstacles and consequences thereof. 


Without being prompted by specific gender-related questions, each of the women individually revealed the weight of gender dynamics on their migration journeys and daily lives in France. Many shared that they had strong female role models as young girls, who supported their education and influenced their opposition to social norms linked to the attribution of gender-roles in society. Post-migration, the narratives revealed how education functions as an active form of exercising their rights, which were often denied in the past. Motivations for continuing their higher education often included the way in which knowledge serves as a form of livelihood, how it encourages problem-solving and strategic decision-making skills, and how it allows the women to empower themselves in a new society. 

So, to make your identity strong, to make your place, you have to be educated and you have to be equal to a man. There will be no chance for the man to say, oh she knows less than me, she’s never been in university so how could she know, she's been her whole life in the house, in the kitchen, so how could she know this. Don’t give them a chance to say this, don't let anyone make you weak, to think you are weak. So, education is important, no?, Rana concluded.


Some challenges illuminated in the study are currently being combated through social and political actions. From a social perspective, access to networks is not only a challenge but also part of the solution for overcoming other integrative obstacles. For example, we are currently seeing a rise in the development of innovative mentoring programs creating links between refugees and locals, proving a real need for such connections. We also see efforts being made on a political level as the French state updates asylum and immigration laws to ensure ‘an effective right of asylum’. However, other challenges require more long-term shifts in the way policymakers and regional actors address the issue of socio-economic integration. Within this context, administrative obstacles and gender inequalities are more difficult to combat as they are greater systemic issues that require a  widespread and long-term response.


As a study that serves as a stepping stone to open up new pathways of educational opportunity, the illumination of narratives contributes to the development of a more comprehensive understanding of refugee experiences. This makes the research unique as it puts forth a series of recommendations based on the research results that are proposed within a framework that not only addresses refugee women, but the refugee population as a whole. In practice, the research results are mobilized by UniR through the development of Intercultur’elles, a new mentoring program designed especially for refugee women engaged in the process of continuing their higher education. It is without a doubt that education facilitates frameworks that make space for the integration of refugee students and open avenues for success and socio-economic inclusion. As we say at UniR, learning is a refuge.

A study by Andee Brown Gershenberg, head of research at UniR Universités et Réfugié.e.s, in collaboration with gender-specialist Mégane Ghorbani, and under the supervision of UniR founder and director, Camila Ríos Armas. 


The study is part of an action research initiative. In mobilizing the research results, UniR has developed a new mentoring program for women, Intercultur’elles. The program aims to validate the experiences of refugee women through the sharing of personal, professional and academic skills with local mentors. For more information on the program, visit or contact


The full research report will be published on World Refugee Day, June 20th, 2020. For more information on the project and to stay updated on the publication and launch event, please contact Andee Brown Gershenberg at To find out more about UniR Universités & Réfugié.e.s, visit our website at or contact us at

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Andee Brown Gershenberg

Andee Brown Gershenberg is the head of research at the Paris-based NGO, UniR Universités & Réfugié.e.s. Born and raised in Southern California, Andee moved to France in 2013 where she graduated from The American University of Paris with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in International Affairs. Her interests in life stories and resiliency have led her to combine these two fields of study and engage in research projects ranging from narrative analyses of Holocaust survivor testimonies, to the experiences of refugee women in accessing education. Through her work, she hopes to empower refugees through storytelling and add a component of understanding and humanity to her research.

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