While South Sudan’s warring parties have failed to make necessary compromises for peace after nearly 15 months of conflict, the people of South Sudan continue to suffer, including millions of children.
In addition to the many hardships South Sudan’s children are facing since civil war erupted in December 2013, the re-emergence of forced recruitment of child soldiers threatens to rob another generation of their potential after decades of war and lost opportunities.
UNICEF’s announcement that dozens of South Sudanese boys—some as young as 13—were abducted by an armed group while taking school exams sparked outrage. Hundreds may have been forcibly recruited as soldiers, constituting one of the gravest examples of the tragic toll this man-made crisis has had on civilians.
Recruitment of child soldiers is a tragic legacy of conflict that has gripped South Sudan since before Sudan’s independence in 1956. As of 2009, only 27 percent of the population and 16 percent of girls and women ages 15 and older were literate—despite the aspirations South Sudanese have long expressed for education and opportunities for youth
When I visited South Sudan in January, citizens pointed to education as a critical investment in the country’s future, even in the midst of violence. A 2013 public opinion poll found 68 percent of those surveyed across South Sudan weren’t satisfied with their government’s performance in providing education.
Yet the South Sudanese people’s hopes for greater investment in and protection of their children’s education are undermined by poor investments and continuing crises. Thirty-five percent of teachers in South Sudan have only a primary level of education. And while South Sudan’s Ministry of Education recently reopened five teacher training institutes, officially 42 percent of the national budget goes to military and security sector costs.
USAID began building schools in southern Sudan in the late 1950s, not long after Sudan’s independence. Our support for education services in South Sudan started in 2002—despite the ongoing 1983-2005 civil war. This early efforthelped make learning possible in southern Sudan after two decades of war and displacement. Since then, USAID has supported more than a dozen substantial education projects in an independent South Sudan. Our current support includes six multi-year education projects with a total budget of more than $165 million.
Our assistance has included building or rehabilitating 140 primary schools and four secondary schools; awarding more than 9,000 scholarships to girls and disadvantaged boys; and providing radio literacy programs that have reached more than half a million children and older students who had missed out on formal schooling. We’ve helped train teachers and created policies regarding long-term education planning and delivery. Our determined commitment to support the South Sudanese in providing education has resulted in major progress: school enrollment more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, from 300,000 pupils to more than 1.4 million.
Despite these efforts and measurable progress, less than half of school-aged children in South Sudan were enrolled in school before the conflict erupted in December 2013. Since then, more than 2 million South Sudanese have been displaced by conflict, and some 400,000 students have dropped out of school. An estimated 70 percent of schools in the most conflict-affected states (Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity) were closed as of November 2014, and some 89 schools are currently occupied by fighting forces or internally displaced persons.
Given these developments, we refocused our educational activities to assist people wherever they are—educating children who have been displaced as well as communities receiving large numbers of displaced children, establishing community schools in remote areas lacking educational access, increasing school security and safety and helping children who live in cattle camps overseeing their family livestock become literate in their mother tongue.
South Sudan will not be able to reach its potential until the country’s leaders end the conflict and commit to ensuring that their nation’s children have the opportunity to learn, protected from this senseless violence.