In Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, where UMCOR’s program is concentrated, more girls are going to school—and staying in school. Photo: Mike Barbee
UMCOR is working to help reverse the historical imbalance in girls’ access to education in South Sudan
By David Tereshchuk*
May 28, 2015—Two years into its Girls’ Education in South Sudan program (GESS), the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) already is seeing improvements in girls’ attendance at school, as a path begins to open to reverse the historical imbalance in girls’ access to education.
Traditionally, only one girl in 10 has completed her primary education in South Sudan, and in the country’s secondary schools, only a third of students have been female.
Working in collaboration with Government of South Sudan education authorities, and with funds from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and from the Government of South Sudan, UMCOR seeks to help change those statistics.
Program Manager Erika Pearl recently visited schools in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where the UMCOR effort is concentrated. “The project is going very well,” she said. “The schools are taking advantage of what is on offer to enhance the learning environment, with more students being attracted to school and staying in school—and that includes the girls.”
Pearl cited one school she visited where the attendance that day stood at 1,047 boys and 714 girls. The gender balance is still unequal, but it is strikingly better than the customary picture of boys outnumbering girls two to one.
Incentives for schooling
Individual grants to girls attending school, which is an important part of the program, are making a big difference, according to Pearl.
“Many of these girls are from impoverished families,” she said. The $42 grants they receive through the program “enable them to buy school uniforms and shoes, which really help them feel they belong in school.”
In a new pilot aspect of the program, female teachers are being deliberately recruited and trained to also be mentors and role models for the girls.
“We’re very excited about this component,” said Pearl. “Mentoring young women is steadily becoming an integral part of the job. They will talk to the girls about things beyond the straight instruction in their studies.”
Teachers will, for instance, stress the value of delaying marriage beyond the very young ages that have often been determined by custom and tradition.
To cultivate widespread community engagement with girls’ schooling, the program also involves radio broadcasting, with programming content provided through the British Broadcasting Corporation’s charitable wing, BBC Media Action.
The GESS approach includes discussion groups of the broadcasts’ listeners, which are held in the villages. Steady feedback from the groups indicates change: Communities are now taking girls’ education and the delaying of their marriages seriously. They also emphasize the significance of female teachers.
The overseas funding for the program is matched by funding by the Government of South Sudan. On her visit, Pearl noticed how simple practical remedies to problems can result from local “capitation grants,” as they are known.
Pearl explained how one school she visited in the town of Aweil used its capitation grant to install fencing to impede passage through the grounds of pedestrian, vehicular, and animal traffic. A clearly identifiable and more secure learning environment was created, and students became more focused in their studies and didn’t wander off at break-times.
“Everyone noticed,” said Pearl, “how students would now stay for a full day’s study—girls as well as boys.”
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 country.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.