|© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Furrer|
|Children hold out banners during the launch of UNICEF's ‘Go to School’ initiative for free education in Juba, Southern Sudan, a region where an estimated 76 per cent of the population is illiterate.|
By Ben Parker
JUBA, Southern Sudan, 3 April 2006 – Getting the kids ready for a new school term can be a hectic and expensive affair, most parents would agree. But it pales in comparison with buying, shipping and packing school supplies for 1.6 million Southern Sudanese children – a process that demands a forklift for the pencil sharpeners alone.
Supplying the basic contents of a school bag for every primary school child in the region is just one part of a huge ‘Go to School’ initiative launched this month.
The campaign takes place against a backdrop of disruption and damage left in this vast region of Sudan by the country’s two-decade civil war, which formally ended in 2005. There is no piped water, nor any paved roads to speak of, no postal service and little in the way of health care or clean water. Three quarters of the 10 million people of Southern Sudan cannot read or write.
Blessed with oil reserves but recovering from conflict, what Southern Sudan lacks most of all is an educated population to manage its resources, rebuild its infrastructure, start businesses, teach, nurse and govern.
’No school to go back to’
At a lively 1 April event launching the ‘Go to School’ initiative at Buluk Primary School in the regional capital, Juba, Southern Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit told a crowd of hundreds: "Though the war is over, we have yet another war to fight.” In this new war against disease, hunger and poverty, he said, “the pen is the greatest weapon.”
|© UNICEF Sudan/2006/Furrer|
|UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah stands by boxes of school books, school bags and other education supplies during the launch of UNICEF's ‘Go to School’ campaign in Juba, Southern Sudan.|
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah added that the minds, determination and potential of Southern Sudan’s people, especially its children, are even more precious than its oil and mineral resources. While UNICEF has organized many post-war ‘Back to School’ campaigns in other countries, said Ms. Salah, the one here is different “because most of the children have never been to school. And often, there's no school to go back to.”
Indeed, schools in Southern Sudan are crowded, poorly equipped and lack trained teachers, and only about half of them are housed in any kind of building at all. Most schools have no regular funding and depend on voluntary contributions from parents. Barely a quarter of children attend school for any length of time, and unbridled dropout rates mean that only about 3 per cent of boys and less than 1 per cent of girls finish primary school.
Sharp pencils, sharp minds
During the ‘Go to School’ campaign launch, children from dozens of schools acted in skits, sang and even managed to persuade the normally reserved President to dance. The initiative they helped launch seeks to address the central reasons why most of Southern Sudan's children don't go to school. Among other objectives, the campaign plans to:
|© UNICEF Sudan/2006|
|Sudanese school children wear t-shirts that were hand-painted by their peers in Germany. The German National Committee for UNICEF coordinated the delivery of 4,000 t-shirts with the help of Schenker, a German-based global logistics firm.|
All of this work needs to be backed by sound policy, strong coordination and effective management by the largely autonomous Government of Southern Sudan. The government’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, less than a year old, is provisionally allocated 13 per cent of the region's 2006 budget.
The ‘Go to School’ initiative, currently funded at a level of about $22 million, is spearheaded by the Government of Southern Sudan and UNICEF but depends on the resources and commitment of numerous donors, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and community groups. A further $22 million is needed to achieve the first year's targets, which aim to get an extra 700,000 children in school on top of the estimated 500,000 already there for the academic year that starts this month.
Southern Sudan's children, battered by war, are depending on this initiative to keep their minds – and their pencils – sharp for the future.