Education in Africa’s Newest Nation and the Additional Challenges For Girls

By Claire Davaine

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  

(Photo Credit)


In July 2011, South Sudan became an independent nation – the world's newest nation and Africa's 55th country. As a new nation, South Sudan has the dual challenge of dealing with the legacy of more than 50 years of conflict and continued instability, along with huge development needs. 

People have faced a long period of civil strife and, as a result, South Sudan has been left with some of the world's worst developmental indicators, including health and education. The new nation has the world's highest maternal mortality rate (2,054 per 100,000 live births) and lowest female literacy rates, almost 90% of South Sudanese women are estimated to be illiterate), 

According to Unicef, there is a direct correlation between female education and maternal and child health. Girls in South Sudan are statistically more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes or during childbirth than they are of completing their primary education.

If the lack of funds and infrastructures, along with a poor and mostly illiterate population, makes establishing an effective education system challenging, there are also cultural practices involving women which make it even more difficult for girls to get an education.

Illiteracy and Disparities in Education

Most of the South Sudanese population is illiterate, with an average literacy rate, for those 15 and older, at 39% for men and 15% for women, meaning two-thirds of illiterate youth are female. Moreover, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country - 70% of the population under the age of 30 years old. Thus, South Sudan’s future depends largely on its ability to educate its young population. 

Hence, today, education is a major priority for both citizenry and national government.

However, compared with other countries around the world, South Sudan can be ranked second to last in terms of providing children access primary school (Katie Smith and Liesbet, 2014). 

To its credit, the government of South Sudan has created various policies to increase school enrolment, including advancing the rights of girls to education.  Since it was signed in 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) established a new education system (World Bank, 2012). The 2008 Child Act and Transitional Constitution provides the right to free and compulsory primary education. It also explicitly states that no girl can be expelled from school due to pregnancy, and that young mothers must be allowed to continue their education.

The education system “catch-up phase” also permitted the primary school gross enrolment rate (GER) to increase from an estimated 21% in 2000 to 72% in 2009. The secondary and higher education subsectors remaining relatively small in South Sudan. In 2009, only 6,500 students were enrolled in higher education at South Sudan campuses.

South Sudan has an Alternative Education System (AES) that offers learning opportunities to children and adults who either have never attended formal education, or have attended school but dropped out and not likely to reenrol, including pregnant girls and mothers. Programmes are often implemented in partnerships with the support of organizations and development partners such as Community-based Girls’ Schools (CGS).

With more than 200,000 students (equal to approximately 18 percent of the enrolment of primary school), AES is the second largest part of the education system. In 2011, close to 70,000 girls and women went to school under this programme.

However, despite these efforts, providing quality education in South Sudan is not an easy task and disparities in education, for both school enrolment and completion rates, are quite substantial. 

Although the widest inequalities are associated with ethnic groups, regions, and urban-rural as well as rich-poor dimensions, there are also strong gender disparities. Unicef estimates that 1.3 million children are enrolled in education – a "significant increase" from 400,000 in 2005 – although girls, especially in rural areas, are still "significantly under-represented". 

Gender Gap

Girls in South Sudan face serious disadvantages in education at all levels, and the gender gap is wider in secondary and higher education than in primary. The country has the worst indicators for girls' education in the world. Based on 2009 enrolment data from the Education Management Information System (EMIS), girls represent 37% of total enrolments in primary schools, 27% in secondary schools, and 24% in higher education.  

Girls are generally less likely to pass the secondary school examination, and drop out, while boys remain. Moreover, girls are more likely to be enrolled later and removed from primary school earlier than their male student counterparts. 

According to the World Bank in 2012, only seven girls for every ten boys attended primary education, while five girls for every ten boys were enrolled in secondary education. Only one girl in ten completes primary education in South Sudan, and girls comprise just a third of the secondary school population. In 2013 only 500 girls were in the last grade of secondary school in the entire country.

Rural Population at the Bottom of Education

Gender inequity is a central feature of South Sudan’s education system, particularly in rural areas where more than 80 percent of the population resides. The country has an estimated 1 million out-of-school children, 925 000 of whom live in rural areas. 

In urban areas, where the educational coverage is relatively high, gender inequity exists but is diminishing. For those children who enrol in school, boys are 14 percentage points more likely than girls to remain enrolled until grade 8. In rural areas, where educational coverage is much lower, girls are definitely at a disadvantage compared with children in the cities and are much less likely than urban boys to ever enrol in school. 

Barriers to Girls’ Education

Education enrolment and completion are also effected by safety issues, financial constraints, institutional and cultural barriers, violence in and out of educational settings, and early and forced marriages that widen gender disparities, especially in the poorest communities.

As reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), marriage can be a lucrative incentive for parents to marry their daughters off at an early age before completing school (IRIN, 2009).  

Human Right Watch tells the story of a 16 year-old girl forced to leave school in grade 8 (class 6) and marry a 50-year-old man who paid her father 60 cows. Her father said “it is a waste of money to educate a girl and that girls are born so that people can eat” and added “marriage, not education, will bring me respect in the community.”

Children from the wealthiest families are 32% more likely to begin primary school than their counterparts from the poorest families. 

Boys First!

Currently, when asked why their children are not in school, parents give similar reasons for their sons as for their daughters, according to the National Baseline Household Survey (NBHS): “no money for school costs” and “school too far from home.” 

This is a major change from 2001, when parents reported different reasons for girls and boys not in school. According to a Care International survey of schools, girls’ nonattendance was attributed to domestic chores while boys’ was attributed to distance to school. This could indicate either that there has been a change in attitudes toward girls’ school participation or that out-of-school girls and boys now have more similar characteristics than a decade ago, as the gender gap in access to schooling is narrowing.

However, if a family cannot afford to send all of their children to school, the interests of the boys’ education will be favoured (Brown, Gordon; Kevin Watkins (2012). Girls will be removed from school earlier and privileged for household tasks.

Female Teacher to Show the Way

Female teachers are essential to serve as a positive role model for girls, encouraging them to continue their studies.  However, the level of female primary teachers only represent 13%, while there are only 11% of female teachers in the workforce at secondary school. A low number of female teachers may have a significant impact on girl enrolment, retention and completions as the education systems themselves don’t promote the good aspects of girl child education.

While a gap between boys’ and girls’ enrolment at all levels of education persists, it has diminished greatly over recent years. Moreover, girls’ education appears to be the most efficient strategy for breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. More educated women tend to be healthier, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better health care and education to their own children.  As a whole, all of these factors lift families and communities from a place of marginalisation, as well as reduce the other abuses women face as a result of entire generations growing up knowing nothing but war.