Saturday, April 03, 2010

Guest Voices: the hopes of children in South Sudan

From Concern International, Nina Gehm tells us the story of her work in South Sudan. An area where children have a greater chance of dying at childbirth than finishing an education.

Peace prospects brighten children’s dreams in South Sudan

For nearly two years now, I have worked in South Sudan, helping Concern empower the poorest of the poor through programs in education, farming, nutrition, and water. Even though I live here and I witness daily examples of the hardships people face just trying to survive, the statistics never fail to dishearten me.

Consider, for example, that a 15-year-old girl has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing school.

Last year, the United Nations issued a press release with a few other statistics that shocked me, like this one: “92 percent of women in Southern Sudan can’t read or write; and only 27 percent of girls are in school.”

But because I live here and see examples of courage and strength every day also, I know there is hope. Even though last year more people died in South Sudan than in Darfur, peace is now taking hold for the first time in decades and people are filled with a new energy and confidence.

Soon, in 2011, the people of South Sudan will vote in a referendum for independence and this new sense of confidence is growing.

At a school supported by Concern in the remote village of Pantit in Aweil West County, I spent some time talking to children. By the time I left them, I too was full of confidence, and was also uplifted and inspired.

There was no complaining among these children, no “downbeat attitude” despite the fact that they are the absolute poorest of the poor. Each child I spoke to displayed a tangible sense of determination and eagerness.

Maria, a 16-year-old seventh grader, is just one example. In a voice full of conviction, she told me, “I want to be a doctor.” Without a trace of self pity, she then told me how she has to walk for two hours every morning just to get to school, and then has to make another hot, dusty two-hour journey to get home after classes are over.

“I have to study hard, attend school and get good grades,” she said—a hopeful statement in a place where there are few teachers and most schools were destroyed in a long civil conflict.

“My parents support my plans,” she announces with pride. She is lucky: the majority of girls in South Sudan are not so lucky, and Maria is aware of that. “Some parents don’t allow their daughters to go to school,“ she tells me.

“Parents don’t see the importance of school, and sometimes they just need children at home to help in the house, or mind the cattle.”

That’s one of the many reasons I am so proud that Concern supports 35 schools throughout Aweil West County, training teachers, building classrooms, and working with communities to increase enrollment. We have enrolled 14,500 children (4,500 of them girls) in these schools in the past year alone.

Despite the odds, Maria has a chance for a bright future—and there is lots of hope for country as well. She is determined to reach her goals and be a part of Sudan’s peaceful future. Maria wants to move to Juba, the regional capital of South Sudan, and practice medicine.

She says that only after she has completed her studies will she consider marriage. I can’t help but smile at what Concern has made possible. This strong, smart girl is living proof of the importance of education in transforming the lives of children who otherwise would be trapped in the cycle of poverty.

In South Sudan, the Concern team has worked hard over many long, hard years to develop a holistic approach to education. We promote girls’ enrollment; construct schools for safer, child-friendly learning spaces; train teachers; facilitate school feeding; and provide uniforms to children of very poor families—who otherwise feel too ashamed of their poverty and lack of appropriate clothing—so that they will attend school.

National initiatives are also tackling the problem of poor enrollment in primary school. Recently, the government started a campaign to encourage enrollment and pupil retention (particularly of girls), which Concern’s education team is strongly supporting.

We do this by establishing Parent-Teacher Associations at all Concern-supported schools to boost community involvement in education. School staff and volunteers receive training from Concern to address enrollment issues. These groups do house-to-house visits in communities to tell parents the benefits of sending all of their children to school.

The new school year is about to start: already I am looking forward to seeing more children come forward to enroll. I am hopeful too, that there will be more girls among them, and that this time, each of them will get the chance to finish and be a big part of a bright future for South Sudan.

Nina Gehm joined Concern in 2006, and moved to South Sudan as Program Support Officer two years later. Based in Juba, Nina travels regularly to visit and meet with the participants of Concern’s education, health, nutrition, water, sanitation and livelihoods projects. When Nina is not in the field hiking up mountains to visit watershed sites, or visiting clinics to assess the impact of Concern’s work, she is attached to her laptop working on donor relations and communications.

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