Today, 24th January, is the International Day of Education and we mark the day through reflecting on the theme of ‘Changing course, transforming education’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities in education. As we move forward, it will be vital to change course and transform education through improving the resilience of the education system to ensure quality and inclusive education for the most marginalised children. Without remedial action, learning losses and school dropout will continue to rise, reversing progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
In March 2020, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan ordered all schools in South Sudan to close to contain the spread of COVID-19. Almost two million children were forced out of classes. For a country like South Sudan, where education was already vulnerable due to the protracted crisis, the impact of school closures was devastating, particularly for girls.
The closure of schools rendered many children nervous about their future. While schools were closed, many girls were engaged in domestic work, whilst some pursued petty business as a means of supporting themselves. There were also reports of alarming numbers of early and forced marriages, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence.
To try to find out the magnitude of the issue, Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS), supported the Ministry of General Education and Instruction (MoGEI), conducted a countrywide assessment to establish the number of girls who were pregnant at the time of the study. The assessment found that 4,780 girls from 2,010 schools were pregnant across the country.
MoGEI learnt that many pregnant and nursing girls were being denied access to education and examinations. In response, MoGEI issued a circular in January 2021, on “Access to education and examinations for pregnant candidates”. The circular stated that, “All pregnant candidates shall be permitted to register for and sit their final examinations. No pregnant learner shall be refused access to education or examination, and all shall proactively be encouraged to continue their education.”
GESS’ Gender, Equity and Social Inclusion (GESI) and Mentoring Assistants, in collaboration with school management, began contacting pregnant and nursing learners and their parents to encourage them to sit their final exams at the beginning of 2021. One of these girls is Luisa. We spoke to Luisa about the challenges she has faced in order to resume her education.
“I am Lusia, a 21-year-old former student of Bright Boma Star High Secondary School in Juba.” Lusia, along with six other girls in Senior 4 class in Juba, sat their final examinations whilst pregnant. Like Lusia, many students were worried that they would not be able to sit their final exams. “I did not know pregnant girls can be allowed in class, (to) attend, and sit examinations, but I was lucky to sit the South Sudan Secondary School Examination”, Lusia added.
“Before sitting my exams, I came to know there are people who do not want girls to drop out of school. My school Head Teacher, and the GESI and Mentoring Assistant were behind me, following me to ensure I didn’t lose hope. My husband first opposed the idea of going to school but I ignored his advice and took my future into my own hands.”
Lusia added, “I was a terrible experience getting pregnant while at school. It turned out that our own home environment became unfriendly to me. I was ashamed, lonely, and less supported materially and emotionally. Going for maternity leave was a big experience I wasn’t prepared for, but I had no choice.”
It was at this moment, when Lusia had lost hope, that the GESI & Mentoring Assistant visited her home as part of GESS’ outreach and mentoring activities. Equipped with the circular issued by MoGEI, the GESI & Mentoring Assistant informed Lusia and her father that pregnant and nursing learners should be allowed to learn and to sit their examinations. She stated that Lusia’s hard work and studying should not be in vain, and that if she passed her examinations she would then have the option of going to university. From her own experience, the GESI & Mentoring Assistant expressed how a mother’s own education and knowledge, economic standing and success, impacts the future of the generation she brings up. This advice was the push that Lusia’s father needed.
“I was fearing to go back to school but after hearing the message that pregnant girls should be allowed to sit for examinations, my parents allowed me to go back to school. It took time for my parents to decide. And finally, I sat. I continued the remaining papers with courage up to the end. Credit goes to those who supported and encouraged me while sitting my exams.”
“Now, as I wait for my results, I wait with optimism. I hope to join university to pursue my dream to study medicine. I also look forward to being a role model to many girls who faced the same challenge I came through. Some of my friends did not sit their exams because of stigma and no support from their family.”
“I thanked GESS for supporting me during my difficult moments when people around me were no longer interested in addressing my demands.” As well as receiving mentoring from the GESI & Mentoring Assistant, Lusia received SSP 8,250 through the 2020 GESS Cash Transfer process. She continued, “I bought textbooks and a uniform to enable me to sit my finals.”
In May and November of 2020, GESS rolled out 2 rounds Cash Transfer payments while schools were closed. The payments supported girls and their families to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging them to continue learning and to re-enrol in school once they reopened.
The 2021 Cash Transfer payment process started in November. The payments are intended to support girls with educational needs, as well as responding to the increased economic needs of girls’ households during this difficult time of COVID-19. Over 420,000 girls across South Sudan have so far received their Cash Transfers, and we continue to work to get the money to girls in hard-to-reach areas, and locations affected by flooding and conflict.
While COVID-19 has been devastating for many girls in South Sudan, the continuation of Cash Transfers to girls, alongside intensified community mobilisation and support for girls’ education, including for nursing and pregnant girls, has helped to ensure that girls get back into school.
In Lusia’s school, Bright Boma Star High Secondary School, 510 girls received the GESS Cash Transfer in 2021. This is 51 fewer girls than the year before.
Although we have not yet reached pre-COVID-19 levels, enrolment stands at 2.58 million in South Sudan, according to the South Sudan Schools’ Attendance Monitoring System (SAMS). This is an improvement on the predicted figures, although there is still some way to go.
South Sudan, alongside other African countries, has taken important steps to protect the right to education of pregnant and nursing learners. In order to ‘change course and transform education’, we must encourage and support the education and academic progress of these girls without discrimination to ensure that these rights are upheld.
In this video, shot earlier in 2021 in Bor, Jonglei State, we spoke to pregnant and nursing learners to find out what this MoGEI directive means to them: