Young mothers returning to education

Giving birth to changing cultural norms in South Sudan

Yiming Qu
A mother doing her exam with a toddler on her arm
08 February 2020

Despite being displaced due conflict in South Sudan, Nyaget Mot navigates life inside a Protection of Civilian (PoC) camp for internally displaced as a determined mother and student.

The campus of Juba One Girls’ Primary School is unusually tranquil as students complete their final examinations. In a corner shadowed by trees, 24-year old Mot is breastfeeding her new born son, Garang, born just 19 days before the assessments began.

Wrapped snugly in a comfy white cotton cloth, the little one sleeps throughout. Still learning how to cuddle the neonate, Mot adjusts her fingers every now and then to ensure that Garang feels most comfortable in her arms. After breastfeeding, Mot gingerly hands her baby to an elder woman, a warm-hearted volunteer at the school to look after Garang while his mother heads back to the exam which she spent a year preparing for.

An infant being cuddled
Mot is straightening the clothes of her 19-day-old son during examination

In the classroom, Mot transforms from a mother to a Primary 8 candidate. One hour later, she comes back to Garang with a broad smile. She completed her paper, 30 minutes earlier than her peers.

Mot takes a deep breath to ease her mind from the ‘somehow difficult’ science paper and surveys her surroundings. It is the first time in five years that Mot has left the camp that she lives in.

The sky is as blue as what she could recall in her hometown, a village located in Leer, in the north of South Sudan. Life before the war was simple, yet happy. She attended classes at a local school and helped her mother with household chores after. “I was happy in Leer because that was home,” says Mot.

When conflict broke out in 2014, she fled into the bushes with her mother and two siblings. They trekked four days to reach Leer, where they were transported by the United Nations (UN) to Bentiu.

The family stayed at the UN premises in Bentiu for months before being relocated to Juba and the Protection of Civilian camp.

Mot may have lost all of her possessions on the journey, but not her dream. “I always wanted to become an educated person,” says Mot with determination in her voice. “I would like to continue my education and hopefully one day I can go to university and become a nurse.”

“She is the lucky one,” murmurs Kim, the headmaster of PoC Hope Primary School that Mot attends. Kim has witnessed many girls drop out of school since it was established in 2014, due to marriage and early pregnancy.

Mot plays with her 19-day-old son in their Juba home
Mot plays with her 19-day-old son in their Juba home

Social norms are deeply embedded in society and consequently girls rarely have return to school once they are married, whilst child marriage is prevalent across South Sudan.

The 2018 Annual Education Census found that 11 percent of dropouts in primary school were due to marriage, and being one of the top three reasons of dropout overall.

Mot plays with her 19-day-old son at home
Mot plays with her 19-day-old son at home

The grim gender disparity is haunting the education sector in South Sudan. One shocking example was seen at a girl’s school in Pibor, where Primary 5 to Primary 8 stopped existing. When questioned on the whereabouts of the girls, the teachers simply replied, “they are married.”

According to the 2018 Annual Education Census, 43,768 students across South Sudan are enrolled in Primary 8, the last grade of the primary level education, meaning hardly any makes it to secondary school. The ones who do are mainly boys.

Mot’s return to school is rare. Her sitting exams immediately after the delivery of the baby even more so.

Besides Mot’s own self-determination, her husband, who is a medical school student, and UNICEF supports her continued pursuit of education.

UNICEF and its implementing partner, the Norwegian Refugee Council, established the Hope Primary School inside the PoC with the goal to ensure an equitable access to education. Continuous support from UNICEF has been provided to the school through the establishment of a temporary learning space, the provision of teaching and learning materials, payment of teachers’ incentives, training of teachers and the establishment of a Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

In the room next to Mot is 28-year-oldRebecca Nyakume, a mother to an infant and a student sitting her science examination. In her left arm is a baby, awake and cheerfully gazing at his mother. Nyakume pauses from time to time to cuddle the little bundle and gets him to fall asleep.  

Although a single mother of five, a student and the family breadwinner, Nyakume stays focused on her vision: a bright future for herself and her children, away from the makeshift tarpaulin tent they currently live in. Nyakume is not only enrolled in school, but all of her school-age children are as well. “I hope that my youngest can remember that I took him to the Primary Leaving Exams when he sits his own one day,” said Nyakume with love. “I want to be a role model to my children so that they can understand the importance of education and have an educated mind themselves.”  

Mot and Nyakume are among 990 students from the PoC in Juba who are participating in the final exams with the support from UNICEF and its implementing partners INTERSOS, NRC and DMI. Both women come from unprivileged backgrounds, suffer the consequences of prolonged conflicts and regularly battle poverty and biased social norms. Despite it all, they are growing into agents of change in their own lives and to the wider world around them.

UNICEF education in emergencies programmes are generously supported by the Norwegian Government and USAID