Sudan

Combat veteran goes door-to-door to get girls back to school

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sudan/2005/ Parker
Reuben Meen, a community mobilizer, goes door-to-door to locate out-of-school children and promote girls' education.

RUMBEK, Sudan, 1 June 2005 – For six years, Reuben Meen fought on the front lines of Africa’s longest-running civil war.

Today, he is a soldier in a different battle: The effort to bring both girls and boys into the classrooms of what some are calling the ‘new Sudan’, after the signing of historic peace accords between the Government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

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 the peace accords, the slow, arduous work of reconstruction is taking place against a backdrop of massive poverty.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sudan/2005/ Parker
Students at Rumbek Girls' Primary School. Hundreds of girls are enrolled in the lower grades, but only seven in Grade 8.

Over 90 per cent of people in southern Sudan live on less than a dollar a day. The conflict that spanned two decades, killing 2 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 southern Sudan complete primary school. At Rumbek Girls’ Primary School, 320 students are enrolled in Grade 1 – but only seven in Grade 8.

Grassroots efforts

Along with other community mobilizers who have fanned out across southern 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).

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sudan/2005/ Parker
A wheel rim serves as a school bell at Pul-Ajil Community Girls' School. Inadequate school facilities mean that about half of all classes in southern Sudan take place outside.

Response has been positive, in part because advocates for girls’ education include influential leaders such as tribal chiefs and former rebel officials. “There is a need to start from the top,” says Reuben, whose status as a combat veteran and former schoolteacher makes him a respected figure here.

“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.”

Next steps

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 southern 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.”


 

 

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