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South Sudan, 1 October 2015: Education brings the promise of a bright future for children in Bentiu

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Rich
Tabitha, 17, attending Liberty Primary School in Bentiu Protection of Civilians site.

By Claire McKeever

1 October 2015, BENTIU, South Sudan – The crowded UN base sheltering over 100,000 internally displaced people in Bentiu, South Sudan can be an unforgiving place to be a child.

Over half the population are children and many of them have experienced unthinkable violence. A small number of young people, idle and frustrated, but also still traumatized from their ordeal, have joined gangs in the camp who loot, rape and steal. Their victims are often other children.

John, 19 years old, is one of the young people who has shunned the gangs and instead embraced education as a pathway to a better future.

“Life is very difficult here as there are many crimes. There are children who don’t go to school. They beat people without reason. And they take things.”

Before being forced to flee to the UN base for safety, John and his siblings lived in a village in Mayendit where life was good and the family grew their own crops. His father died of disease before the conflict in 2013 so, when not in school, John helped his mother with planting and taking care of his two sisters and one brother.

The first thing John did when his family arrived to the UN Protection of Civilians site one year ago was find the nearest school. He is now in class seven in the UNICEF-USAID supported Liberty Primary School where his favourite subject is science.

John firmly believes that his country can be a peaceful nation and that children like him have a big part to play. “I like to come to school because maybe I will save South Sudan some day. The future will be bright if we are educated. I have to bring peace to the people of South Sudan.”

He is a driven student with good grades who wants to be a doctor when he grows up to help his people. When not in school he goes to church and plays football with his friends. He also helps his younger siblings with their schoolwork. John expects that he will live in the UN base until peace comes as he has heard that it is not safe outside.

While he waits for peace, John is focused on his studies. He smiles broadly as he delivers the good news that this year he successfully passed his examinations, meaning that he can move to the next grade – an exceptional achievement in South Sudan where less than one in ten children complete primary school.

His friend and classmate Tabitha is 17 years old and, as a girl, has faced even more barriers to receiving an education than the boys in her class. Shockingly, a girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary school.

“Daughters are resources to their families,” explains Tabitha. “The man has to give cows or maybe pay them money. There are few girls in this school because their fathers will not let them. When you become a married girl, you cannot go to school anymore.”

Tabitha credits her success to her father, who as an educated man understood the importance sending all of his children to school.

“Education is important. If a girl is educated, she will know the difference between a bad thing and a good thing. Things like the fighting. I want to be an educated woman. I want to help the people of South Sudan.”

Tabitha saw firsthand the violence carried out against women and children in the current conflict when her family ran to the camp from Bentiu town for protection in February 2014.

Being in school makes her feel safe but she wishes they had more exercise books and pens to learn with. During the floods last year, she continued to attend her classes even though glass and nails beneath the surface of the water cut her feet as she made her way to and from school.

Now her family is moving to a shelter in the new, elevated site in the PoC where UNICEF with USAID has established new schools for 13,000 students.

“The young people, they like peace, they don’t like violence,” Tabitha expresses with optimism for the future of her country. With continued support for education in emergencies, boys and girls like John and Tabitha can become the positive forces for change that they are working so hard to achieve.



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