Children, education is your right

Back to Learning is a flagship education programme of UNICEF South Sudan and has been implemented across the country for the last four years.

By James Aldworth
Children from 17 schools in Renk took part in a procession to mark the beginning of the BTL launch.
UNICEF South Sudan/2019/Aldworth

05 February 2019

RENK, South Sudan – The sun beat down relentlessly on Saalam Stadium in Renk as the government, UNICEF, partner organizations, donor representatives and over 1,000 school children gathered to launch this year’s Back to Learning programme. The wind was strong, whipping up the dry Upper Nile dust into the eyes of onlookers and creating a thunderous echo across the public-address system. Those making speeches grasped their notes tightly.

This is the fifth year for this flagship education programme, which has brought over 1.2 million children back to school. In a country with some of the highest out of school statistics in the world, this is a significant achievement. First established in early 2015, BTL as it is commonly known, has supported the training of teachers, parent teacher associations and the rehabilitation of learning spaces across South Sudan.

The world’s newest nation was wracked by civil war between December 2013 and the autumn of 2018 when the latest peace agreement was signed, and a cessation of hostilities was put in place. During this period of insecurity, schools were routinely attacked, occupied or destroyed. One in three schools in the country were closed at least once by the actions of parties to the conflict. Furthermore, in a cash starved economy, the country’s teachers were not paid, new teachers were not trained, and many were forced to give up the profession in order to find other means of employment.

The result has led to some 2.2 million children being out of school. With more than two million refugees having fled to neighbouring countries and an additional 1.9 million displaced internally, the stable conditions needed for education have been denied to a large portion of the population.

The MC surround by a group
UNICEF South Sudan/2019/Aldworth
The MC for the launch briefs one of the children ahead of their prayer recital.

The country is now hopeful that peace will take hold. Pockets of fighting have reduced to an ever-smaller amount of area. But even before independence in July 2011, South Sudan lacked many basic services and its infrastructure was neglected or non-existent. It borrowed school curriculums from its neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya.

In Renk the message to the children gathered in the baking sun was clear and unremitting. This is your time and you are the future of this country. The Undersecretary of General Education and Instruction had travelled to Renk for the launch, along with the Chairperson of the Education Specialized Committee. However, it was the Honourable Minister of the Education Ministry who gave the key note and final speech. Addressing the children before him, he emphasized;

“All of you have a right to education, including other rights such as, religion, participation, etc. but without education, we can’t develop South Sudan. So, it’s time now to exercise it.”

In 2019, UNICEF and partners have pledged to bring over 700,000 children back to school, a target that if achieved, would make a large dent in South Sudan’s out of school figures. In addition to this, the government is shortly to launch the country’s first national curriculum, which will focus on building a common sense of culture, history and identity. The potential for such a project is enormous.

And as the UNICEF Representative, Andrea Suley, reminded the crowd in her remarks, 2019 will mark 30 years since the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). South Sudan is a signatory to this convention and has made a formal commitment to education for all.

With this is mind, and with continued support from BTL’s donors and partners, as well as a sustained peace in South Sudan, the future for education should be brighter.


(The Back to Learning campaign in South Sudan is generously provided by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), The Government of Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.)