Sudan + 1 more

Sudan: Empowering girls to prevent teen pregnancie

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JUBA, 18 June 2007 (IRIN) - Christine Simon, 18, still has one-and-a-half years of primary school left but she is proud to have reached this level of education, despite growing up away from home, with a baby to support.

"I want to read, to go on; that is why I came back to school," Simon said in the Southern Sudan capital of Juba.

Growing up a refugee in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the long war in Southern Sudan disrupted her education, Simon fell pregnant. She acknowledges that she was lucky - two of her friends who became pregnant are unlikely to get back to school. She and her former boyfriend have no interest in getting married, leaving his mother and aunt look after the baby, Chantal, while she is in class.

If Simon makes it to the end of next year, she will be one of the relatively small number of girls who finish primary school in Southern Sudan, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Challenges

Simon's headmaster reckons that as many as three-quarters of his female students drop out because of pregnancy, some as young as 11. He and two of his colleagues have themselves had daughters dropping out for the same reason. According to Simon, money and gifts are often an incentive to have sex with older men as well as age mates.

Teachers say the solution is to set up girls' boarding schools across the state. "But then there'd still be the holidays," said one. "Really, we do not know what is going on."

Although UNICEF officials say that Western Equatoria has been Southern Sudan's biggest success story in terms of boosting female enrolment - especially with the advent of peace and free education - the numbers drop off again when the girls reach 14-16.

UNICEF's Rose Njagi said that while fewer girls in pastoralist communities lose out on education because of pregnancy, early marriage is frequently having the same effect.

"There is no problem for gender equity in the lower primary classes, sometimes we even find more girls, but in the upper classes there's a significant drop because of pregnancy and early marriage," explains Njagi.

Peer pressure

She is working to roll out the Girl's Education Movement across Southern Sudan, a peer-to-peer system where girls and boys encourage others (and their parents) to go to school.

Grace Datiro, the minister for education in Western Equatoria, said she was trying to battle the "huge problem" with school clubs, mothers' clubs and men's clubs as well as bringing it up in rallies across the state. Datiro is also looking for traditional and judicial ways to deter men from having sexual relations with schoolgirls.

"The girls are often doing it for money, goods and because they're attracted and think they should go for it. Instead of advising the girl, the men just take advantage. There's also the impact of the war - our culture has sort of eroded ... the girls are looking for their identity," said Datiro.

Njagi thinks the answer lies with children themselves. It is unclear how much of Southern Sudan's increase in girl enrolment from 17 to 37 per cent is a result of the new government's policy of free education.

The key, however, is to encourage girls to stay in school. Rather than just handing out condoms to the boys and scare-stories to the girls, Njagi says UNICEF and the government are trying to encourage members of these mixed-sex peer groups at schools to support each other. This would help to reduce teen pregnancy.

"Children are not shy and not scared," says Njagi, who says that often students can talk and raise awareness about issues, including underage pregnancy, that adults shy away from.

"The focus is to empower girls ... at the end of the day, it's up to them," said Njagi. "They should be making informed decisions, so they can chart their own destiny."

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