|Mary (far right) is one of just five girls in her class in Deng Nhial Primary School in Rumbek, Southern Sudan, and is one of the most vocal advocates for girls’ education in her community.|
By Edward Carwardine
RUMBEK, Sudan, 8 July 2009 – Mary, 17, is an eighth grader at the Deng Nhial Primary School in Rumbek, Southern Sudan. Mary’s mother is determined to see her daughter complete her schooling, since she did not have the opportunity to get an education herself.
“My mother has always encouraged me to come to school and study hard,” said Mary. “She once told me that when she was younger, she wanted to go to school, but her parents arranged for her to get married to my father instead.”
Mary is the oldest child in her family. Her two younger brothers also go to school at Deng Nhial. She is working hard to overcome the barriers to girls’ education.
In fact, Mary is one of the few girls in the Rumbek area who have the opportunity to complete the first eight years of primary school. She is one of five girls in her class, amongst 141 boys.
Barriers to girls’ education
In Southern Sudan, it is estimated that nearly half of school-age children do not have access to basic facilities for learning. Assessments conducted during the civil war that ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 found that a girl in Southern Sudan was more likely to die at childbirth than to finish primary school.
Girls comprise a third of children enrolled in primary school in Southern Sudan; however, drop-out rates among girls during the course of the first years of primary school are considered to be quite high.
According to a recent study on barriers to girls' education conducted by UNICEF and the Government of Southern Sudan’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, cultural factors driven mainly by attitudes and traditions leading to early marriages and pregnancies are some of the leading contributors to girls dropping out of school.
The study reinforced the conclusions of the 2006 Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces, which identified negative attitudes towards girls’ education as another major factor contributing to gender disparity in school enrolment.
UNICEF works to enrol girls
Educating girls has cascading benefits, including helping to decrease poverty, prevent disease, eradicate violence and deter political instability. UNICEF is currently focusing on innovative approaches to increasing girls’ enrolment. These approaches include developing learning spaces that are child-friendly and and gender sensitive – an important element of child-friendly schools, UNICEF’s main model for delivering quality education for all children.
One approach is to establish separate sanitation facilities for girls and boys. One approach is to establish separate sanitation facilities for girls and boys. This is a crucial part of successful retention strategies for girls, since schools that lack girls’ latrines are often seen as unsafe by both parents and children, and girls’ dropout rates accelerate dramatically at the onset of menstruation.
Another approach is the formation of Girls Education Movement (GEM) clubs, which promote gender equality in education through social mobilization, public information and advocacy activities led by schoolchildren. The initiative uses peer-to-peer support and creative facilitation by children and young people, while drawing on the wisdom of adults. The UNICEF Germany National Committee has provided support for GEM clubs in Southern Sudan.
Plans for the future
These approaches to increasing girls’ enrolment appear to be working for girls like Mary. She hopes to enter secondary school next year and continue with her education.
Mary has ambitious plans for the future.
“I encourage other girls to come to school like me at every opportunity I get,” she said. “I hope to inspire more girls to come to school and study hard when I qualify to be a doctor.”