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Giving a second chance to girls in South Sudan
25 April 2017

Secondary School girls in a JRS supported school in Western Equatoria in South Sudan pose for a photo with a JRS staff Sr. Elizabeth; Photo by Aidan Azairwe, 2013
The fact that they are actually mothers with young babies at home has not killed their determination to learn.

Yambio, South Sudan 

The phenomenon of child marriages is widespread in South Sudan where 52% and 9% of girls below 18 and 15 years respectively are married. This denies such girls the chance to continue with their education, thus severely limiting their future opportunities. However, a few of them do return to school and easily blend in with the other children.

Meeting a group of such girls in one Primary school in Western Equatoria, I was struck by their desire to make up for the lost school time. The fact that they are actually mothers with young babies at home has not killed their determination to learn. ‘I made the decision to come back to school as I realized I was doing nothing useful at home’, one girl said in response to a question why she returned to school after giving birth. She continued, ‘‘I knew I needed to complete my education so I told my parents and they allowed me to come back’’.

Although most of these girls are lucky to have family members looking after their young ones, they still carry with them responsibilities of motherhood. ‘Sometimes I have to miss classes when my baby is sick’ one of them explained. Some of them are actually married and leave behind their husbands and young children every morning when they come to school.

However, they narrated that it is not all rosy at school either as at one time or the other the younger children tease them and a few male teachers also make unkind remarks about their marital status. Unfortunately, some schools have no female teachers that the girls can confide with. That discourages them but they are still determined to go through school.

Girls in this community must be encouraged in all ways to get an education as their numbers drastically drop towards the end of the primary school cycle. A chart hanging in the head teacher’s office in the school I visited painted a grim picture that is the fate of girls here. In 2016, the school had only 10 girls and 29 boys sitting the primary 8 national examinations in December. And, the number of girls in primary 8 in 2017 is currently 19, 3 of whom are mothers while there are 56 boys in the same class! 

To remedy this situation, the government designed the Alternative Learning Program (ALP) to give a second chance for school dropouts to receive education. And while it targets both boys and girls, the situation of those girls returning to school is unique as they are usually mothers already, some as young as 14.

The program, designed with a shorter learning duration of 4 years for primary education as opposed to 8 years takes into account the fact that the learners have other family responsibilities to attend to. It is also a distinct education program meant to take place separately from the main schools and in the late afternoon hours. It is therefore an innovative way of ensuring all children acquire basic education regardless of their circumstances.

However, the ALP needs to be strengthened and well-resourced if it is to be a useful option for those it is intended for. Currently, schools, both primary and secondary that have children or students who should be in the ALP have mixed them with the other children due to lack of space, resources or knowledge of how the program should be run. This practice should be discouraged as it does little to reduce the risk of dropping again, due to the long time taken to finish the education cycle especially for those who give birth while still in lower primary. Instead, separate premises running the ALP should be set up across the region.

It is notable that the cash transfers given to girls by the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) program have been a major factor influencing the young mothers to return to school. Indeed, one school reported that the young mothers that enrolled this year did so when they learnt that they would benefit from the cash transfers. Therefore, GESS should consider expanding the cash transfers to the ALP level too than limiting it to primary and secondary education.

This is because besides giving the young mothers a chance to get an education, it would also contribute to the avoidance of normalizing the occurrence of early pregnancies and marriages amongst girls of school going age by separating this particular group of learners from the other young girls.

Other international agencies and partners working in the education sector in Western Equatoria should also consider supporting either ALP or relevant vocational programmes for over-age learners and secondary school graduates. 

Written by Beatrice Gikonyo, Regional Advocacy Officer, JRS Eastern Africa

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