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South Sudan: New struggle for former rebels
Today, he is a soldier in a different battle: the effort to bring both girls and boys into the classrooms of the ‘New Sudan.’
As part of a broad social mobilization drive here, Reuben and his team of five are canvassing villages to locate out-of-school children and promote girls’ education. Community leaders credit the campaign with changing attitudes toward the role of women and starting to reverse some of the worst enrolment rates in the world.
The legacy of war
Five months after the signing of historic peace accords between the Government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the slow, arduous work of reconstruction is taking place against a backdrop of massive poverty.
Over 90 per cent of people in South Sudan live on less than a dollar a day. The conflict that spanned two decades, killing two million people and displacing millions more, has left little trace of national infrastructure or social institutions.
For girls, the consequences of war have been particularly brutal.
The marriage of a daughter is one of the only reliable sources of income here. In exchange for ‘bride price’ payable in cattle, girls are often married – and removed from school – while still in their early teens.
Fewer than 1 per cent of girls in South Sudan complete primary school. At Rumbek Girls’ Primary School, 320 students are enrolled in Grade 1 – but only seven in Grade 8.
Along with other ‘community mobilizers’ who have fanned out across South Sudan, Reuben and his team are going house-to-house to persuade parents that educated girls are healthier, stronger, and better able to contribute to their families’ well-being.
Team members are selected by the community and supported by UNICEF, the Secretariat of Education, and the local organization PAGE (Promotion and Advocacy on Girls’ Education).
“None of the women in my family were sent to school,” he says. “So I have to start with my own daughters, and then the boys – and then, show the community.”
The teams invite parents to observe classes and organize open meetings where issues can be publicly aired and addressed. In Rumbek, community elders suggested that schools be located near students’ homes in order to minimize the long walks that can leave girls exposed to attack. Parents also expressed their anxiety that no food was available to students at school.
The mobilizers relay these concerns to international agencies and local leaders who are working to rebuild school facilities. Nine schools in the Rumbek area are now being expanded at the community’s initiative. One mobilizer, Gordon Thal, is purchasing land for a garden so that food can be grown for children’s meals at school.
Nodding toward a site where the foundation for a new classroom is being laid, Gordon says, “girls’ education is the priority of the world now.”
The latest problem is how to keep up with demand. While schools are still in short supply, a December 2004 study found that education ranked as the highest priority in South Sudan .
Gabriel Gakmar Kuc, a teacher at Rumbek Girls’ Primary School, says that educated girls – married or not – are increasingly perceived to contribute to “the welfare of the community as well as the welfare of the family.”
Widespread violence and displacement made it difficult to effect change during the war years. Many of those who were literate fled into exile, leaving few role models to inspire young girls.
But as peace takes hold, new possibilities emerge.
“We are fighting this war against illiteracy,” says Gabriel Malieny Marek, another teacher at Rumbek Girls’ Primary School. “We are building the nation.”