On Monday, hundreds of thousands of children in Southern Sudan will go to school for the first time in more than 20 years. The UN Children's Fund and Sudanese authorities are launching a massive Go To School campaign on Saturday in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. UNICEF says the aim of the campaign is to more than double the number of children in primary school during the course of the school year.
Going to school, at best, was a hit or miss affair during Sudan's long-running civil war. Children often had to interrupt their schooling because of fighting. Many children were forced to flee their homes when their villages came under attack. Many schools were damaged or destroyed.
Last year the Sudanese government in the north and the rebel Sudanese Liberation Army in the South signed a peace agreement ending 21 years of civil war.
A spokesman for the U.N. Children's Fund, Damien Personnaz, calls this year's start of school in Southern Sudan a tangible peace dividend.
"The significance of going back to school is extremely important in a country which has been ruined by 20 years of civil war," he said. "This is the region where most of the Sudanese people have suffered the most. This is not the first time that children are going back to school. But, this is the first time the whole population, the whole government and UNICEF and other agencies are putting a lot of effort in order to increase the enrollment rate which is already extremely low in Sudan."
Personnaz tells VOA only about 22 percent of an estimated 2.2 million school age children are enrolled in primary school. He says UNICEF hopes the massive Go To School campaign will succeed in boosting that enrolment rate.
Sudan's civil war caused more than five million people to become internally displaced or refugees. Southern Sudan's infrastructure and economy are shattered. The education system lies in ruins. Aid agencies are trying to rebuild the society in hopes of persuading many of the people who fled the area to return home.
Many people fear the conflict in Sudan's province of Darfur could destabilize the fragile peace in the south. Efforts to end that regional war, so far, have failed.
Personnaz says there are few proper schools left in Southern Sudan. He says many of the current schools consist of little more than a blackboard propped under a tree. In addition, a majority of the 8,600 teachers are untrained volunteers.
The UNICEF spokeman says very few girls go to school and this is a big problem. He says only one in four children who go to school is a girl and only about one percent of them complete primary education.
"We want the girls to have the same rights as boys to go to school and to remain in school, to go from the primary level to the secondary level at least," he added. "Before this has never happened. If you go to a normal school in Sudan, and including in South Sudan now, you will see basically only boys, and this has to change."
Getting girls to go to school is a main focus of the UNICEF campaign. Personnaz says this will be hard to do, because people are very poor. When parents have to choose which of their children are to attend school, he says invariably the boy will be chosen over the girl.