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Southern Sudan: Changing the odds for girls
“Men come to the edge of the school and yell at us,” says Jackline, 18, a student at Yambio Girls’ Secondary School. “People think the girls are hiding here. They think we should be married.”
Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family. They may think that early marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or more generally, offers the care of a male guardian.
Early marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage.
In southern Sudan, a teenage girl is far more likely to be a wife than a student. Out of a population of over 7 million people, only about 500 girls complete primary school each year. By contrast, one in five adolescent girls is already a mother.
Early marriage is common across the region, but in southern Sudan, wracked by decades of civil war, the problem has been exacerbated by endemic poverty.
A ‘bride price’, usually paid in cows, is due to a girl’s family on her wedding day – making a daughter one of the only realistic sources of income in a place where the average citizen lives on approximately 25 cents a day.
In nearly every case, the beginning of a marriage spells the end of an education.
Community efforts keep girls in school
Faced with a primary school completion rate for girls in southern Sudan that hovers around one per cent, local leaders and international agencies are developing innovative strategies to encourage families to keep their daughters in the classroom.
Since 2002, over 200 Community Girls’ Schools have been established to deliver basic education at an accelerated pace, providing a protective environment for young girls and ensuring that they are academically prepared to continue their education in mainstream schools.
The project is implemented by UNICEF, the Secretariat of Education, and the USAID-supported Sudan Basic Education Program, and modelled on a successful approach pioneered in Bangladesh.
Small groups of students study with the same teacher over several years, enabling a support network to develop as the girls make their way through school. A flexible school calendar has won support among parents, while food rations supplied by the World Food Programme provide an additional incentive for attendance.
Safe schools a priority for girls
In Yambio, the gender gap in primary education closed by 30 per cent between 2003 and 2004. Yet for most girls here, the challenges remain immense.
One in nine women in southern Sudan dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Only seven per cent of teachers are female, and close to 90 per cent of all women are illiterate.
By the age of 18, a single woman without children is often stigmatized as ‘unmarriageable’. Girls as young as 12 can be forced to wed men many years their senior.
UNICEF addresses early marriage as part of a broader approach of building a "protective environment" for children which shelters them from this type of exploitation.
Early marriage can have harmful consequences for children – including health problems, spousal abuse and the denial of education. Once married, girls often do not go back to school.
Back at Yambio Girls’ Secondary School, food is in short supply, teachers lack adequate training, and Jackline, the only one of eight siblings to go to school, has taken to selling tea in the market to pay her fees.
But it is the threat of violence that preoccupies her most. When asked what would make the school a better place, Jackline replies without hesitation. “We need a stronger fence,” she says, “to keep us safe, when we don’t want to be married.”