Enrolment at Rejaf Centre for the Blind in Juba sits at a meagre 22 students. There is a great stigma attached to those with special needs in South Sudan. Many children with disabilities are not valued as effective contributors to society, their education seen as a pointless expense. “Traditionally, our society looks at them as a burden”, GESS County Liaison Officer, Mawa Samuel, tells us.
Established as a boarding school in 1982, students were brought from around the country, allowing them to learn from specially-trained teachers in an inclusive and safe space, explains Head Teacher, Edema Eriku. However, when the war broke out in Juba in 1987, the school temporarily closed down. Upon reopening in 1989, the school could no longer support boarders financially and so became a day school.
With this change came a new set of challenges. In an ideal world, the school would provide transport to all students to ensure their safe transit to and from school. However, the current economic crisis has crippled the school, which can no longer afford to pay the high price of fuel.
There is a great lack of statistics on women and girls with disabilities in the developing world. The World Report on Disability (WHO, World Bank, 2011) estimates that between 93-150 million children up to the age of 14 are living with disabilities. The report states that ‘50.6% of males with disabilities have completed primary school, compared with 61.3% of males without disabilities. Females with disabilities report 41.7% primary school completion compared to 52.9% of females without disabilities, a difference of 8.9% between males and females with disabilities.’ These differences are anticipated to be even larger in sub-Saharan Africa.
Girls with disabilities in developing countries are some of the most marginalized members of society. Prevalent negative socio-cultural attitudes towards gender, along with the stigma that disabled children face, means that girls encounter double discrimination.
P5 student, Dalia, talked to us of the challenge she faces just to reach school each and every day – facing stigma and verbal abuse from those that do not understand that she is a capable member of society and has the right to an education, just like any other child. “People will say, ‘You are blind, what are you doing on the road?’ They don’t want to show me the right way when I’m lost.” She noted that some kindhearted people help her on her way, but she lives with the constant threat of verbal abuse due to her disability.
GESS has been supporting the school with Capitation Grants since 2015. Part of the money goes towards fuel costs, but it is not enough to transport all of the students to and from school. There is still a great need. The school will receive a Capitation Grant this year and Head Teacher, Edema, hopes that he can support as many students as possible with free transportation.
The Centre supports children from P1-P5, after which students are integrated into schools in the area due to a lack of funding for facilities for learners in upper primary and secondary schools. Upon integration to these schools, the teachers are not always well-equipped to manage students with disabilities; with student to teacher ratios often reaching 60:1 in upper primary, even if teachers in these non-specialised schools had the time to give adequate attention, it is likely that they do not have the necessary skills to ensure that the visually impaired receive a quality education.
The school faces many additional costs to that of a standard school. For example, the teachers are faced with the time-consuming and expensive task of transcribing all of the books from the new curriculum into braille, which requires a type of card – the cost of which seems to be rising by the day, according to Edema. There is a great need to properly equip schools with the necessary teaching and learning aids so that students can access quality education.
The Sustainable Development Goals are calling for quality education for all children by 2030. To reach this objective, children living with disabilities must be allowed the opportunity to be integrated into regular classrooms and schools. In line with this aim, DFID is committed to ‘leaving no one behind’ – prioritising the needs of the most marginalised members of society. But to reach this point, those with disabilities in South Sudan must be viewed as effective contributors to society, rather than a nuisance.
In light of the many requirements, prevalent negative socio-cultural attitudes and the huge number of out-of-school children with disabilities in South Sudan, more must be done to help these children access basic services so that they can thrive and live up to their full potential.