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South Sudan, 16 February 2016: After an education disrupted, relief as children resume exams

© UNICEF/2015/Hamer
Tapisa, 17, sits an exam in Bentiu Protection of Civilians (PoC) site.

 
By Ashley Hamer

BENTIU, South Sudan 16 February 2016 – For children all over the world, exams are usually accompanied by a feeling of dread, but for a small group of students seeking shelter is South Sudan’s largest displacement camp, it’s a time of great excitement.

These students are sitting their national primary school finals for the first time since conflict engulfed the country more than two years ago.

Students from several counties across conflict-ridden Unity State took the exam, but the majority – 189, of which 71 are girls – live in the Bentiu Protection of Civilians (PoC). The site, a sprawling tent and tin city, is the largest United Nations-protected displacement camp in the country, sheltering more than 120,000 people who fled their homes over the course of the last two years of devastating fighting.

Sixteen-year-old Nyaruon Peter is among the candidates who took the P8 exam in the PoC this month. Her family fled their village in eastern Unity when it was attacked in April 2014. They escaped to Bentiu along with thousands of others.

“Before the crisis I was in school. But when we came to the PoC it was crowded, the insecurity was too much inside and outside, the area flooded, we were sheltering in tents. It was impossible to find a school.”

© UNICEF/2015/Hamer
Relief after exams in Bentiu PoC.

Nyaruon first heard about the emergency education services through her local Community Leaders and trekked across the site to find her nearest school.

She said she tries to go to school five days a week and studies at the weekends.

“I was studying until the early morning to prepare [for this P8 exam]. The mathematics paper was very difficult for me but I tried my best.”

In addition to her schoolwork, Nyaruon helps her mother and father to look after her eight siblings with daily chores including fetching water, cooking and washing clothes.

Her father, Peter Biel, never went to school. He is adamant that despite the conflict, his daughter will finish her education.

“I need Nyaruon to be in school so she will be a responsible person who can reach better things in life and pass on her knowledge when she has her own family. She will be an example,” said Biel.

The Primary 8 exam in South Sudan signals the end of primary education and the start of secondary. A total of 3,700 children took the test in areas where the conflict has for the past two years, made this important rite of academic passage impossible.

Since the middle of 2015, UNICEF has been working with representatives of both sides of the conflict to have the test re-introduced.

“After two years of disappointment and obstacles because of the ongoing crisis, finally we managed to get these first children to take the exam,” said Luel Deng Ding, UNICEF’s education officer in Bentiu.” I am very satisfied and proud.”

South Sudan – the youngest country in the world – struggles with some of the lowest education indicators. Over half of primary and lower secondary age children not accessing an education. The national literacy rate is just 27 percent, and for women this plummets to 16 percent.

© UNICEF/2016/Hamer
UNICEF & partners have assisted children in POCs and opposition areas to sit exams.

According to Ding, children under 18 account for more than 50 percent of those living in Bentiu PoC.

There are seven primary schools across the camp, all set up and supported by UNICEF since 2013, with teachers and assistants recruited from the community itself.

But space for more schools in the overcrowded site is limited. There is no secondary school, which severely limits opportunities for students who complete primary education.

Just ten kilometres up a bumpy, unpaved road from the PoC lies the town of Bentiu, the state capital.

Off limits to humanitarians for most of the past 12 months, the town is again accessible and UNICEF is working to repair and re-open another seven schools.

In a sign of success in reclaiming space for children outside the PoC, 11 young people sat the P8 exam in Bentiu Town at the same time as the students inside the camp.

“Taking this exam raises the spirits of the children and their families and it encourages other children to register for school when they see their friends succeed,” added Ding.

UNICEF’s goal is to get 30,000 children and young people living in the PoC back in education by the end of 2016.

For Nyaruon, her aspirations have already moved beyond just passing the P8. “We are not part of this war. As long as we have to live here, we ask only that if we pass the exam, the humanitarian agencies will help us to open a secondary school so we can continue our education.”

 

 
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