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GEM clubs help more girls get to school in Southern Sudan

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©UNICEF video
Girls’ Education Movement uses song and dance to raise awareness in Southern Sudan.

By Rachel Beck

JUBA, Southern Sudan, 30 November 2006 – Like children everywhere, students in Southern Sudan spend most of their mornings studying textbooks, reciting lessons and trying to keep still. But for two days recently, 55 students and teachers came together to raise education awareness through an exuberant display of song and dance.

The event was part of a strategy pioneered by the Girls’ Education Movement (GEM), a grassroots initiative that promotes equality in education through child participation. Launched in Uganda in 2001, GEM now has active chapters across sub-Saharan Africa – each one using different tactics to ensure that all children have the support they need to stay in school.

In Southern Sudan, only 1 in 100 girls is estimated to have completed a primary education. In the wake of 21 years of civil conflict here, GEM is driving efforts by UNICEF and the new Government of Southern Sudan to rebuild the education system.

Exercises build confidence

Through UNICEF-supported workshops, a core group of students and teachers is trained in creative techniques to identify barriers to education and help bring children back to the classroom. The teams then form GEM clubs in schools and local communities, creating a wide network of young people who are empowered to act as their own best advocates.

During the workshop in Juba, held in August, students staged dramatic performances, practiced their public-speaking skills and engaged in heated debates about the role of women in society. They also attracted the attention of the entire neighbourhood with a spontaneous dance outdoors, accompanied by original songs on the subject of girls’ education.

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© UNICEF video
Students and teachers at a GEM workshop in Juba discuss ways to get children back to school.

Exercises like these help build children’s confidence and encourage them to speak out about the importance of education for both girls and boys. Young people in GEM clubs around Southern Sudan have already led community marches and been invited to meet with prominent politicians, inspiring their peers in Juba to aim for similar heights.

“GEM will give me courage,” says Jahim Buli Vincent, a student at Juba Day Secondary School and a participant in the recent training. “We need to make sure that everyone hears about the importance of educating girls, no matter who they are.”

‘Social mapping’

The workshops also teach specific methods to help identify at-risk and out-of-school children – a major undertaking in a country where basic infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of war and the average citizen has only a single year of education.

Through a technique called ‘social mapping,’ participants create detailed diagrams that help adults see school environments through a child’s eyes. Safe roads, reliable food supplies and separate latrines for girls encourage students to stay in school, while neglected buildings and insufficient learning materials keep them away.

Using the enrolment figures carefully inscribed on each map, students and teachers work to identify gender gaps and develop practical solutions. Girls who face intimidating comments on the way to school are paired with boys who volunteer to walk with them. Student construction committees are formed to dig latrines at schools with inadequate sanitation facilities. Contributions are collected on behalf of children who cannot afford the price of a school uniform.

Slowly but surely, the efforts are paying off. Unofficial reports show enrolment numbers rising in areas where GEM is active.

“When we speak about the importance of educating girls, we are talking to everyone – mothers, fathers, teachers and children,” says Awadia Zeinab Suleiman, another student at Juba Day Secondary School. “We are thinking of what each one of us can do to help. In fact, it is like we are speaking to the whole world.”


 

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Video
27 November 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Jane O’Brien reports on GEM in Southern Sudan, a grassroots girls’ education initiative.

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