SEATTLE — Since its secession from Sudan, the infant country of South Sudan has been entrenched in conflict. When the landlocked country joined the ranks of sovereign nations in 2011, it was with the hope that a new era of prosperity and development would be ushered in. Unfortunately, political dissatisfaction thrust South Sudan into a civil war only two years after its establishment, displacing more than one million people and once again throwing the region into chaotic flux. This instability resulted in near-famine conditions and a crumbling education system. Hundreds of schools have been closed, and as a result an entire generation may go without an education in South Sudan. The literacy rate is a mere 27 percent, a statistic that is not surprising considering more than 70 percent of children have not stepped foot in a classroom.
Girls and women, however, are struggling the most. South Sudanese maternal mortality rates are high and only nine percent of women in South Sudan are literate. Girls in South Sudan are seven times more likely to die in childbirth than they are to graduate from secondary school. In 2013, only 500 girls graduated from high school in the entire country.
A number of factors contribute to these staggering statistics. First and foremost is the social stigma surrounding educated women. Many parents fear that education for their daughters might mean protracted betrothals and cheapened dowries, which provide substantial income for families. This leads families to favor sons when it comes to putting children through school, especially when finances run low.
Furthermore, many schools lack the funding for permanent buildings or basic supplies. Many are little more than tree trunks and blackboards, with no latrines for children to use. This lack of privacy coupled with the expense, or absence, of sanitary pads and tampons leads many girls to either skip school or not enroll at all because of menstruation.
Although the state of education in South Sudan seems bleak, progress is being made slowly but surely. The international community is working closely with the South Sudanese government to address the education crisis. Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) is an initiative started in 2013 by The Ministry of General Education and Instruction of South Sudan and is funded by the UK. The organization is making significant investments in infrastructure and the students themselves.
GESS provides training to teachers all over the country, a service desperately needed given that only 47 percent of South Sudanese primary school teachers and 57 percent of secondary school teachers are properly certified. Furthermore, GESS provides female students with grants of up 2,300 SSP to spend on books, clothing and sanitary products, which allow them to attend school more regularly and stay enrolled longer. Since the start of the program, 184,254 girls have received grants. The goal is to reach 200,000 girls by 2018.
The results of this groundbreaking program have been significant. A study conducted by the University of Sussex & Center for Global Development found that cash transfers and grants allowed schools to stay open longer and increased enrollment numbers from 2014-2016, even in the face of widespread violence and economic instability. These small but profoundly meaningful steps toward enhancing education in South Sudan, particularly for girls, give hope that gender inequality in South Sudan may one day be a thing of the past.
– Micaela Fischer