“Education provides the essential building blocks for lasting peace”, says Akuja de Garang, the Team Leader for Cambridge Education’s Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) programme. This fierce commitment and her determination to promote education for all in the war-torn country of her birth, has led her all the way to Buckingham Palace where she becomes the first British-South Sudanese national to be awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
Akuja’s MBE is in recognition of her tireless work to promote girls’ education and social development in South Sudan. Currently she is leading a 300-strong team to transform the lives of a generation of girls as part of the UK aid-funded GESS programme. Drawing on her experience as a girl growing up in South Sudan, Akuja has been instrumental in GESS’ success, convincing girls, their parents and teachers, and the Minister of Education himself, that their education is worth fighting for.
Born in southern Sudan, Akuja was just eight years’ old when civil war broke out in 1983. She fled the country with her family and eventually settled in the UK where she was afforded the opportunity to gain a first class education – a distant dream for most South Sudanese girls. In a country where culture and traditions mean that many don’t see the value of educating their daughters, only one girl in ten can expect to finish primary school.
Akuja returned to South Sudan in 2004 with an MSc in Violence, Conflict & Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London determined to contribute to the rebuilding of her country. She worked across a number of projects and interventions in areas including human rights, gender, health, education, and peace building before joining the GESS team in 2013.
Over the past four years UK aid funding has enabled the GESS programme to reach over 3500 schools, with more than 9000 grants funding classrooms, latrines, books and much more. Over 300,000 cash transfers have been paid to more than 180,000 girls, while two million people have been reached through radio programmes aimed at changing the negative socio-cultural attitudes towards educating girls.
Reports from GESS are showing that UK aid is helping to hold together the social fabric of South Sudan at a time when it is under maximum pressure. Since 2016 GESS has been the principal source of education funding in the country and this support will remain crucial in transforming the lives of a generation of children in the world’s newest nation.
Akuja collected her MBE in London on Friday 16 June. She will soon return to Juba to continue this essential work. She says:
“Thanks to the incredibly resilient and inspiring South Sudanese girls who continue to fuel my passion for my work and my country. I’m hoping this will be a story that they will aspire to. If I can inspire even just one girl to reach for greatness, to never give up, then everything will have been worthwhile.”