This photo, taken some years ago, shows students singing during class in the Southern Sudanese village of Mankaro. The school was constructed by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
By David Tereshchuk*
August 14, 2014—It is a well-documented truth that educating young women is one of the most effective ways to lift families and communities out of poverty and put a nation on track for sustained development. In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, progress is being made in that vital area of national development.
UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is helping in this essential effort, through its Girls Education in South Sudan (GESS) program, aimed at transforming the lives of a generation of South Sudanese children, particularly girls.
Traditionally, only one girl in 10 completes primary education in South Sudan, and girls comprise just one third of the secondary school population.
GESS will challenge this situation. A five-year project, it is being implemented in all of the 10 states of South Sudan through state Ministries of Education. It is supported by funding from the Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom and from the Government of South Sudan.
In the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where UMCOR has concentrated much of its work, the program builds upon substantial strides already taken to build up school enrollment for girls and ensure their retention in class.
Increased recruiting and training
|South Sudanese students, many of them young girls, pictured at a school in the Girls Education South Sudan program, for which UMCOR is a state co-manager. Photo by Andreea Câmpeanu, courtesy of GESS.
Challenges remain, however, whether these are cultural, financial or result from a lack of infrastructure or trained personnel. So the current GESS effort is ramping up resources available to local schools—including everything from computer equipment and solar electrical systems to motorcycles and chalk. Just as vital to the plan’s success are increased recruiting and specialized training of appropriately skilled staff.
“Sending women for teacher training clearly increases the number of teachers,” says UMCOR GESS Team Leader Christine Meling, “and they in turn mentor and motivate girls to complete their education and achieve similar—or even better—goals.”
UMCOR works closely with the deeply rooted Bahr el Ghazal agency, HARD (Hope Agency for Relief and Development), which was formed in 1995 at the height of the civil war that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence.
The State Ministry of Education works side by side with UMCOR and HARD in the GESS program to promote increased enrollment, attendance and retention of the girls supported through the project.
A creative hallmark of the program is the use of radio broadcasting. As in many other African countries, radio remains the most accessible source of information for the vast majority of South Sudanese people, according to the country’s first national media survey last year.
Dramatizing challenges and solutions
In the GESS program, 15-minute radio presentations (with their production aided by the social action arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC Media Action) often explore real-life situations and dilemmas, and are used to spur discussion and mobilization of local communities that might not otherwise appreciate the value of girls’ schooling.
Since March 2014, the series "Our School" has been airing in five languages. It portrays the lives of girls and their families as they struggle with, and resolve, the challenges of going to school.
In one episode 17-year old Stella Nyoka, who wants to earn a living as an engineer, says she appreciates school because “I need to help my family, my community and especially fellow-girls like me, and to see that girls go to school and learn—instead of whoosh!, going straight into marriage.”
And in an accompanying public service announcement, the availability of GESS funding is made clear … but only after an everyday problem with school uniforms is addressed by two schoolgirl characters, Paite and Keji:
Paite: Oh, Keji. Today is only Monday, and already your school uniform is so very dirty.
Keji: Paite, don’t give me a hard time about my dirty uniform. In our school, we have to sit on the floor as there are no benches. Our books are also very dirty like this. I am even starting to lose interest in school.
Paite: Oh, in our school, we have benches to sit on. Our school applied for a grant from the government. And it is our right as students to tell our teachers how to use this money.
The broadcast explains just how to apply for the funding, and gives a toll-free phone number to call.
GESS organizers are at pains to ensure an ongoing process of monitoring and evaluation for their program. UMCOR trained teachers and principals in the use of a comprehensive school-attendance recording system, and encouraged its widespread adoption. The system allows daily attendance to be recorded and collated electronically in real time.
Cash grants available
This monitoring innovation is already enabling the state education authorities to accurately assess the impact of the new effort. GESS financing is made available to schools that report encouraging attendance records.
Each girl receives a $42 cash grant, and 20,000 girls are expected to benefit from these grants by the close of the program in 2018.
The grants aim, says Meling, “to improve the learning environment that will attract more girls to school and retain them.”
Cash is also available to individual students, especially those from the poorest homes, to enable them to meet basic needs, such as uniforms and shoes. Meling points out, “Girl children will also be motivated to attend classes since they will have the money to procure vital items such as comfort kits, without which they can miss classes. Teenage girls have often missed classes for up to five days in a month because of their menstrual cycle. With the cash grants, this could be made a thing of the past.”
Your gift to UMCOR South Sudan Development, Advance #3021793, will help more girls and young women in South Sudan attain an education and will support other development programs in the world’s newest nation.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.