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Years of War Deprive Sudan's Children of Education - 2002-07-23

On Saturday, representatives of the Sudanese government and the country's main rebel group reached an interim agreement that is designed to end the country's civil war. While all sides acknowledge that much more remains to be done, the people of Sudan have reacted joyfully to the agreement, hoping a war that has lasted 19 years and cost an estimated two million lives may be nearing an end.

For the people of southern Sudan, scene of all of the fighting, one of the most devastating effects of the war is that it has deprived hundreds of thousands of children of an education.

In a land ravaged by war and famine, you would think people would be most anxious for lasting peace or simply food to eat. Not so in Southern Sudan. Although peace and food are definitely high on their list of priorities, all the Sudanese people this reporter spoke with said "education" was their prime goal.

Victor Akok Anei heads the village of Aweil East, in southwestern Sudan. He says that the people of his village believe education, more than anything else, is the key to improving their lives.

"Their problem is education. It's the first priority of the people because without education there is nothing," he said. "Then comes health, and other things will follow."

This view is echoed by Elisabelth Achul Adet, a 32-year-old mother of five. Ms. Adet spoke to VOA in Dinka, the native language of the area, and an interpreter explained what she said.

"She is thinking about education to have the future for children. She doesn't want the fighting," she said. "She wants the small children to get better education. Also, she is thinking about how the war will end and they can get the development, how they can get a better life because there are difficulties."

Why is education so important to the people of southern Sudan? Perhaps it is because so few of them have it. Seventy percent of the children in southern Sudan do not attend school. The percentage for girls is even higher - 80 percent of them do not go to school.

The United Nations children's agency is the lead organization heading up humanitarian services in southern Sudan. For UNICEF, as for the people in the south, education is the top priority. UNICEF spokesman Martin Dawes says it is impossible to exaggerate the important role education plays in the life of a child in Sudan or elsewhere.

"Children don't have a second chance," he said. "A child growing up - that's it. That is a unique event. We have to get that child and we have to get him in school now because if we say, 'Well, maybe things will change in five-years-time, that's a lost child.'"

To help children get the education they need, UNICEF is providing educational materials, training teachers and even building schools.

More than half of the classes in Southern Sudan's Bahr el Ghazal region, in southwestern Sudan, take place under trees. The region also has the lowest enrollment of girl pupils in the south. To combat these problems, UNICEF helped to set up a girls' primary school in region's hub, a town called Rumbeck.

Although Giseili Juma is 19 years old, she attends the Rumbeck primary school. The fact that she is years older than most of her classmates - the years of fighting made it impossible for her to go to school - does not seem to bother her. She says what matters to her is getting an education, which includes learning English. Her native language is Dinka, but she believes it is important that she learn English.

"I like to be in school to learn English because our country is not developed now because most of us are not educated," she said. "So we like to be educated girls and make our country to be open and to help our parents and to be in a good future. Because of that I come to school and like to continue my education and be an educated girl."

Susan Nygongi is UNICEF's project officer for the Bahr el Ghazal region. She hopes the primary school in Rumbeck and a secondary school for girls in Yambio, near Sudan's border with Congo, are just the beginning for UNICEF. She says the agency would like to be able to set up schools closer to villages to make it easier for young people, especially young girls, to go to school. According to Ms. Nygongi, the young girls have very little time to learn.

"Parents don't really want their children - their girl children - to walk really long distances to go to school and by the time they let them walk long distances, they are older - they say start around nine, 10," she said. "And traditionally around 13, 14 they are married off so they don't get a chance of completing their primary education cycle. So in trying to combat this, we are trying to provide schools that are closer to villages."

Ms. Ngongi says the pilot project aims to get younger girls to start attending school earlier. This way they would have attained at least a certain amount of education by the time they are married, in their early teens.

Victor Akok Anei, the head of Aweil East, says the tough economic conditions, combined with the Dinka tradition of early marriage, force many families to marry their daughters off so they can get a dowry. He says that while the family may benefit from this arrangement, it means that the young girl may be illiterate for the rest of her life.

"Here in Dinka areas, it was very difficult for a girl to be taken to school because they see it as a means of getting wealth from her and all this," he said. "And so that's why there is a lot of illiteracy among women in the area. There are very few that received education."

UNICEF and other agencies are trying to overcome this problem by offering adult literacy programs. This way at least some people in southern Sudan will have a second chance to get the education they were deprived of when they were young.