South Sudan's education challenge

The Women's Commission is undertaking a field mission to assess education and livelihood opportunities in South Sudan from November 4 - 19. Please watch this space for field diary updates from Jenny Perlman Robinson and Dale Buscher (as access allows).

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN, Nov. 12, 2006-By many indicators, South Sudan is the most underdeveloped region of the world today. Two decades of war has killed approximately two million people and displaced six million. Eighty-five percent of the population is illiterate. There is no infrastructure in place; what little that existed prior to the 21 years of fighting has either been destroyed or has deteriorated due to lack of maintenance. The region-which is double the size of France-only has 6 kilometers of paved road. Most of the roads are inaccessible during the rainy season, which runs from May to November.

Perhaps no groups have been more greatly affected by the civil war than the children and young people of South Sudan. Nearly all have witnessed atrocities, been victims of atrocities or been forced to commit them. More than 80 percent of the population has been displaced at least once-fleeing to camps in neighboring countries, to safer areas within South Sudan or to squatter settlements around Khartoum. The result is that South Sudan has the lowest education rates in the world today. Only 25 percent of children are currently enrolled in primary school.

The situation is significantly worse for girls than for boys with less than 1 percent completing primary school. The majority of girls who begin primary school end up dropping out after the first few years due to early marriage, pressure to contribute to household chores and income, or lack of funds to pay for school costs such as uniforms and, in some areas, school fees. Only 7 percent of all teachers are female and many families are not comfortable with sending their girls to school where boys significantly outnumber girls and the vast majority of education personnel are male.

There are too few schools to accommodate the 1.6 million children who remain out of school. The majority of schools that do exist consist of little more than a chalkboard under a tree. Few materials are available and schools are completely dependent on UNICEF for chalk, books and teaching aids.

Besides the shortage of basic infrastructure and materials, the number one need cited repeatedly is for more trained teachers. With an adult literacy rate of 15 percent across South Sudan, there is a severe shortage of teachers-and only 6 percent are formally trained. It is not uncommon to visit a school where the teachers themselves have only completed grade four. Without enough teachers, additional schools cannot be created, classes are overcrowded and the quality of education suffers. Despite government funds available, the majority of teachers continue to teach without receiving a salary as disbursement systems are not yet in place. This results in lack of motivation, poor quality of teaching and trained teachers leaving to find paid jobs with NGOs or to pursue other activities.

Numerous challenges face children returning to South Sudan after years of being displaced. Many families are returning home and are unable to afford costs associated with attending school. Widowed women who are heads of household are forced to send their children to collect firewood to sell in the market to buy food staples. Another challenge is language. The new South Sudan education policy states that the community's local language should be used for the first three years and all classes after grade four should be taught in English, the new official language of South Sudan. For many children returning to the region, this is an obstacle as they no longer speak their native language or English, having learned Arabic in north Sudan or French, or other languages, in their host communities.

In light of these enormous difficulties, significant progress has been made over the past year. Each child that attends class-each female teacher recruited and trained- is a victory for South Sudan. A new curriculum is being developed and will slowly be rolled out. Teacher training institutes are being established and the teacher training center in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya will soon be relocated to South Sudan. Plans are underway to bring the University of Juba, currently in Khartoum, back to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Thirteen months after establishing a new government, South Sudan is at a historic moment. The challenges it faces cannot be overstated. Progress, while slow, is monumental considering that the autonomous region is literally starting from nothing. Ongoing international support is needed to help the new government confront the numerous challenges it faces and to keep it moving forward towards a peaceful future and an increasingly educated society.