Today, July 9, South Sudan celebrates its first anniversary. Since independence, education has been a key priority for the government. But many challenges remain – especially girls’ access to education.
It’s been a rough start for the world’s youngest country. South Sudan is currently host to about 175,000 refugees according to UN estimates. On Thursday, the UN Security Council decided to extend its peacekeeping mission – UNMISS – for another year, given the insecure environment. The relationship with Sudan remains tense; in January, South Sudan decided to cut its supply of oil to the North, a decision that meant losing 98% of the country’s annual revenue.
In such an unstable environment, it is vital that education remains a high priority. The young country still has a long way to go. As we found in our policy paper on South Sudan, there are over 1.3 million primary school age children out of school, and enrolment in secondary education is the lowest in the world. Young girls face extreme disadvantages in access to education. There are just 400 girls in the last grade of secondary education in the entire country. As a result, South Sudan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world.
“Our parents look at us and see hundreds of cows,” Winny Nyilueth Athian, a South Sudanese eighth grader told the website The Niles. The cows she refers to are the dowry parents receive for marrying off their daughters. “They see the education of girls as of little use and they also think schooling devalues their cultural beliefs.”
The importance of giving girls education was once again highlighted when the National Bureau of Statistics launched South Sudan’s first statistical yearbook – with a primary focus on education and health – last week. Households with female heads are more often poor than those headed by men, the report finds. But as education of heads and members of households increases, so does the income. The launch of the yearbook is important. As South Sudan’s Vice President Riek Machar said, “Without information, we cannot target appropriate relevant policies. Without relevant information, we cannot choose priorities.”
In what might seem like hopeless circumstances, there are reasons to remain optimistic about the country’s future. Most important, the government remains committed to education. Furthermore, the European Union donated US$14.3 million last month, earmarked for strengthening primary education, with a particular focus on reducing drop-out rates, especially for girls.
But more aid to education in South Sudan is vital if the country is to get anywhere near the Education for All goals. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown argued in a paper published in April that US$400 million of annual aid – supplemented by US$100 million from the government of South Sudan – was necessary to make a real difference. This package, the paper argued, would result in 1 million more primary school age children in school and the required financial support for half a million girls, among other achievements.
Photo: In Renk, South Sudan, children in a camp for returnees meet Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. (UN Photo/Isaac Billy)