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Mary’s story: overcoming barriers to girls’ education in Southern Sudan

Schoolchildren outside their classroom in Rumbek, Southern Sudan
© UNICEF Sudan/2009/Beatrice Ruria
Mary (far right) is one of just five girls in her class in Deng Nhial Primary School in Rumbek, Southern Sudan - yet she is one of the most vocal advocates for girls' education in her community.

RUMBEK, Southern Sudan – “My mother has always encouraged me to come to school and study hard,” says 17-year-old Mary, a Grade 8 student at the Deng Nhial Primary School in Rumbek, Lakes State. 

Mary’s mother is determined to see her daughter complete her schooling, since she did not get the same opportunity to get an education herself. “My mother once told me that when she was younger, she wanted to go to school,” explains Mary “but her parents arranged for her to get married to my father instead.” 

Mary is the oldest child in her family. Her two younger brothers also go to school at Deng Nhial. She is working hard to overcome barriers to girls’ education.

“My father died during the war, more than ten years ago.  My mother has raised us alone.” Marking her mother proud is a major reason why Mary is determined to complete her school education. In this, she is not unique.

One of the few, but not to be ignored

But Mary is unique in other ways. Mary is one of few girls in the Rumbek area who have the opportunity to complete the first eight years of primary school.She is one of few girls in the Rumbek area who have the opportunity to complete the first eight years of primary school. Mary is one of five girls in her class, amongst 141 boys. Many of the girls who joined her in primary school seven years ago have since left school; many are now married and have children.

In Southern Sudan, it is estimated that nearly half of school-age children do not have access to basic facilities for learning. Assessments conducted during the civil war that ended in with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 found that a girl in Southern Sudan was more likely to die at childbirth than to finish primary school. Girls comprise a third of children enrolled in primary school in Southern Sudan; however, dropout rates among girls during the course of the first years of primary school are considered to be quite high.

Girl students in basic classroom in Yei, Southern Sudan
© UNICEF Sudan/2007/Edward Carwardine
While girls are returning to classrooms across Southern Sudan - such as these young students in the town of Yei - there is growing evidence that social and economic factors are keeping many girls away from school.

Cultural factors lead to drop out

According to a recent study on barriers to girl’s education conducted by UNICEF and the Government of Southern Sudan’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, cultural factors driven mainly by attitudes and traditions leading to early marriages and pregnancies are some of the leading contributors to girls dropping out of school. The study reinforced the conclusions of the 2006 Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces (RALS) which identified negative attitudes towards girls’ education as another major factor contributing to gender disparity in school enrolments.

These studies also found that geographically there is a low school enrolment belt particularly for girls in the areas extending from the states of Northern Bahr el Ghazal to Warrap and through to Lakes and Jonglei states in the northern portion of Southern Sudan.

Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State, and Mary’s home, falls within this low enrolment belt. According to the RALS data, the enrolment of girls in school in the Lakes State is less than 30 per cent.

UNICEF is currently focusing on innovative approaches to increasing girls’ enrolment UNICEF is currently focusing on innovative approaches to increasing girls’ enrolment in areas including Rumbek. These approaches include developing learning spaces that are not only child friendly, but also girl friendly.

One approach is to establish separate sanitation facilities for girls and boys. This is a crucial part of successful retention strategies for girls, since schools that lack girls’ latrines are often seen as unsafe by both parents and children, and girls’ dropout rates accelerate dramatically at the onset of menstruation.

A movement for girls' education

Another approach targeted at increasing girls’ enrolment is the formation of Girls Education Movement (GEM) clubs. GEM clubs promote gender equality in education through social mobilization, public information and advocacy activities led by school children.

The initiative uses peer-to-peer support and creative facilitation by children and young people, while drawing on the wisdom of adults, including teachers.  The UNICEF German National Committee has provided support for the roll-out of GEM clubs in Southern Sudan.

These approaches to increasing girls’ enrolment appear to be working for girls like Mary. She hopes to join a secondary school next year and continue with her education. Mary has ambitious plans for her future.

“I encourage other girls to come to school like me at every opportunity I get,” she says.  “I hope to inspire more girls to come to school and study hard when I qualify to be a doctor.”





Socio-economic and cultural barriers to schooling in Southern Sudan (2008)

Download the 2008 report on socio-economic and cultural barriers to schooling in Southern Sudan (PDF format)

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