On 15th May 2013, I was asked to speak at the Friends of Ibba Girls School AGM on behalf of the diaspora in the UK. Below follows a transcription of my speech.
This seminar is about the challenges of girls education in South Sudan.
Numerous indicators show that South Sudan has proportionately fewer girls going to school than any other country in the world. A staggering 84% of the female population are illiterate. That is around 4 million women and girls who will be unable to contribute to the prosperity of their families and to the development of their country to the fullest of the capabilities.
These statistics are alarming, but especially so when considering this statement made by the World Bank: “Women’s empowerment and the promotion of gender equality are key to achieving sustainable development.”
Addressing the gender inequality in education will take a monumental effort and I am heartened when I hear of the efforts of leaders such as Commissioner Na-Gomoro and Hon. Pia Phillip.
There are huge challenges, but these challenges mustn’t be over exaggerated nor must they be considered insurmountable. I’m afraid failure or dithering is simply not an option.
The education system in South Sudan today has inherited a lot from the educational system of the old Sudan. 8 years of primary schooling, followed by 3 years of secondary (where the sciences are introduced), followed by 4 years of higher education.
The educational system has also inherited the consequences of gross under-investment in the region as a result of nearly half a centuries worth of conflict.
The GoSS has ambitious targets for education provision, working with its partners, is aiming for the construction or renovation of 3000 schools, 8 teacher training institutes and 79 county education centres by 2015. But the financing gap is large amounting to around $1.6 billion.
There are large disparities in education provision across the states and counties of South Sudan and a huge number of youths and adults have quite simply missed out on education all together.
- Many primary schools are under the shade of a tree and the rains will keep them effectively shut for days if not weeks at a time – a real disruption to the school cycle.
- Schools don’t have the capacity to absorb the large numbers of students wishing to enrol.
- This is specially problematic at the secondary level where there are few secondary schools and post-primary technical schools for those wishing to progress their education.
- Many teachers only have primary school education themselves and lack the necessary training to make them as effective as they can be.
- English is the language of instruction, something which is problematic for the Arabic speaking children of former garrison towns or of children whose families have returned from francophone countries.
- And there is a general failure to provide relevant practical experience or teach marketable vocational skills that can help take young adults out of the classroom and into the workforce. With all of the infrastructure building and development activities currently going on, it is staggering to learn of the skills gap – filled by foreigners who are being employed simply because the local population does not have the necessary skills.
All this is exasperated by inadequate and irregular funding – made more destabilising by the austerity measures as a consequence of the oil crisis.
In a country where women have a 16% literacy rate. Where 2 out of 3 are more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than to graduate from primary school, the challenges are even more acute.
There is a high attrition rate in education with a high drop-out that increases as you progress up the educational ladder.
There are three main reasons for girls dropping out of education:
- Early Marriage
- Early Pregnancy
- Inadequate Sanitary Conditions
- The dowry system in South Sudan acts as a lucrative incentive for parents to marry their girls off early. This is especially so in rural areas.
- Domestic responsibilities at home also grow with age, leaving girls with less and less time for school and study – placing them in the middle of a tug of war between present responsibilities and future aspirations.
- The threat of violence is ever present – and long walks to school exposes girls and young women to the risk of assault and intimidation along the way. Something parents are especially wary of.
- There is a lack of facilities with limited access to girl’s own toilets and to sanitary towels. This is especially problematic when a girl is menstruating forcing them into truancy.
- And finally, there is the prioritisation of boys over girls at the household when it comes to education. If a family can’t afford to send all their children for schooling, they will invariably send their boys.
Engaging with parents and strengthening their commitment to education is known to have a positive impact on dropouts. As is evidenced by a concerted program in Central Equatoria State which has resulted in it having the lowest dropout rate of all the 10 states.
Initiatives such as the Friends of Ibba Girls school hits the nail on the head in their approach to addressing the challenges of girls education:
- They are building a school for girls with female dormitories and girls own latrines to encourage girls to remain in school.
- The fact that it is a boarding school removes the security fears that parents may have for their children making their way to and from school.
- They are looking to recruit a female head master who will be more sensible to gender issues.
- They have the support and backing of the community and community leaders under the guidance of a female commissioner.
- They are taking a holistic view, bringing in health provision, small scale farming and other tools of sustainability.
I would like to end with a personal story. Nearly a hundred years ago, the Rev. Archibald Shaw came to our village and asked the local chiefs to offer up their sons to assist him in his missionary work. In exchange, he would give them an education.
As he lay dying from small pox, My great-grandfather called over my grandfather, Yanga (my namesake) and told him to go and line up with the sons of the local chiefs. “Do not take no for an answer” he councilled Yanga sternly. So, whilst the chiefs children tried to shoo him away, my grandfather remained steadfast and ended up being one of the lucky few picked by Rev. Shaw to accompany him.
It was that little moment that changed the fortune of my family entirely. Yanga would go on to accompany Rev. Shaw across the length and breadth of South Sudan. His education assured his own children were amongst the literate few who could serve as clerks and assistants to the British colonialists. And with the advent of independence in 1955 serve in the newly established civil service, the police force and the nascent nations military.
Those of us who know what a critical role chance and luck had in placing us amongst the literate minority in South Sudan find it incredibly difficult to stand idly by as others equally worthy are denied the same opportunities.
We will continue to work hard, both a home and in the diaspora to realise the dream of quality education, available to all.