About two months ago, I accepted a job with a UN agency that focuses, amongst other things, on education for children with a spotlight on empowering the girl child. The decision meant a 360 change in terms of not only work – as, before, I had been contributing to a grossly food-based response – but personal life – you can picture me writing this article from the bed that I have glued to the tin-thick wall of the pre-fab container I will be occupying for the next how-ever-many months. I count my blessings, as I am lucky enough to have running water and electricity that ensures I can bathe and sleep comfortably.
Despite my own inner journey towards the better understanding of this region and country, I have had the opportunity to meet some of its people – some which include its influential heads of state and ministers. About a week or so into my new role, I had the pleasure of accompanying my boss on a field mission to Aweil, a state in the northern Bahr el Ghazal region of the country; one which, despite being considered “green” and, therefore, not currently undergoing active conflict, has been grappling with peaking numbers of malnutrition and malaria. The region harbours a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of a whopping 33 percent – this means one in three children below the age of five are severely malnourished. To put things into perspective, when 10 percent or more of children are classified as suffering from GAM, the situation is generally considered to be a serious emergency; over 15 percent and the emergency is considered critical. Causes of malnutrition vary accordingly to economic, physical and social access to nutritious food as well as its utilization on behalf of the child (whether conditions are sanitary and do not harbour the risk of diseases such as diarrhea which hamper the assimilation of the nutrients and therefore development).
In a situational backdrop, such as this – where malaria preventative measures are not wide-spread; there is a lack of accessibility to both medical institutions and markets due to transport limitations and inflation-caused soaring of food prices – many children drop out of school. Particularly for the girl child, as pregnancy rates are high amongst young women and girls education is not seen as a valuable asset, the abandonment of academia, and consequently, the freedom from school fees, can be appealing.
A major part of the mandate of the agency I work with is retention of children in schools – especially girls as their development not only empowers them to make their own choices (such as that of pregnancy), but empowers them to become decision makers within their community. In a country, such as South Sudan whose culture dictates gender roles, highlighting the value of female education is tough and scarcely accepted. During my afore mentioned visit, whilst speaking to the director of a girls’ school that is being constructed by the agency I work with in Aweil town about the reasons for why girls drop out, he spoke of how there was a need to construct a fence between the school grounds and the external roads to avoid the girls from being distracted by their “boyfriends”. He stated that, as it was, without a barrier, girls would communicate and flirt with boys rather than pay attention to the teachers – and flirting would lead to them getting pregnant and dropping out. On trying to explain to him as well as various state authorities that the high dropout rates are not to be blamed on the girls themselves, but rather that there is a need to heighten awareness amongst the males in the community on the value of female education as well, the responses tended to be dismissive or shoo-ed away with a change of topic.
And this is where the balance between humanitarian response and host traditions is rendered difficult, for as much one must be respectful of the customs within a nation, basic human rights such as education are not to be negotiated. How to do this in a timely manner – timely being the key word – and without causing tension amongst the community are questions that remain to be answered.
Thankfully, finger pointing aside, by building trust and establishing good coordination and partnership with the ministers and authorities running the northern Bahr el Ghazal region, the agency is now finishing the construction of the school. This initiative is an incredible leap in the right direction: approximately 1,500 girls will now have a dedicated and safe environment in which to learn and develop into empowered young women. The important thing will be to continue advocating for their – and many young women like them – schooling amongst both female and male communities in order to someday reach overall acceptance when it comes to the education of the girl child.