Regina Anek, a Deputy Director for Gender at South Sudan’s Ministry of Education in Eastern Equatoria state, just saved a 14-year-old girl from an early, forced marriage. She was empowered to intervene as a result of a series of trainings she received from a USAID-supported girls education program that provides mentoring training to teachers and education officials to encourage girls not only to enroll in but also to complete secondary school.
USAID’s Gender Equity through Education Program has strengthened the education system by addressing financial and infrastructure barriers, social and cultural barriers, and institutional barriers to gender parity in education, through scholarships; advocacy, community mobilization, and mentoring; and institutional support. The mentoring training gave Regina skills to intervene in situations where girls face communal pressure to drop out of school to get married.
“I was informed that a student from one of the schools in my state was about to be married off, and I hurried to convene a meeting with the family and community to stop the matter,” Regina explained. “Meanwhile, I asked the parents to allow me to accommodate the girl at my house so that she could continue attending school as we resolved her marriage case.” Regina added that after weeks of negotiating and educating the girl’s parents and community leaders on the importance of an educated girl to the family and society as a whole, the girl was allowed to return home and continue with school.
These USAID-supported mentoring activities are meant to support girls within and outside of the educational structure to address broader social and cultural issues that keep girls from completing their education.
Survey data indicate that while 30 percent of boys in South Sudan complete the eight-year primary cycle, only 17 percent of girls do. The legacy of war in South Sudan is one factor, but girls’ education is also hampered by other social, cultural and financial barriers that hinder them from either enrolling in or staying in school.
One cultural barrier is early marriage. Persistent poverty in communities has been cited as a major reason that parents give their daughters in marriage in exchange for some financial security for the family, but some cultural norms also dictate marriage readiness for girls as young as 13. The community at school and outside of school stigmatizes older girls in school, which adversely affects their school attendance. With USAID’s mentoring support and some tuition stipend, many girls who were married at an early age are able to return and complete secondary school.
USAID’s efforts in supporting girls’ education in South Sudan date back to 2002, when scholarship support was provided to girls to complete secondary school and join teacher training institutes. This was aimed at encouraging more women to join the teaching profession, because research indicates that targeted recruitment of women has a correlation with girls completing school. USAID provided more than 9,000 scholarships through this program to girls and disadvantaged boys in secondary school and more than 4,400 scholarships to students in teacher training institutes in South Sudan and the “Three Areas” on the Sudan-South Sudan border (Abyei, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan).