NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Children in South Sudan are more likely to die before the age of five than complete a basic education, the United Nations said in a report released on Tuesday.
More money needs to be invested in education to secure peace in South Sudan as the region counts down to independence on 9 July, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) said.
“If you don’t give people hope and opportunities for education, what do you think is going to happen? People who are without hope are people who are going to be far more prone to being drawn into armed conflict,” said Kevin Watkins, director of UNESCO’s educational monitoring report
The region set to be the world’s newest country comes at the bottom of most indicators for access to education.
Only 46 percent of South Sudan’s children of primary-school age are in school, the second lowest enrolment rate globally. The situation is worse for secondary education, with the region’s enrolment rate of just 4 percent being the lowest in the world.
Most students are learning under tents, in the open air or in semi-permanent structures made from local materials like mud, grass and wood, while there are four to six children to every text book.
The number of children attending primary school has quadrupled since a peace deal signed in 2005 ended 21 years of civil war. But 1.3 million children in the region still get no education.
Poverty is one of the main obstacles as many schools, often run by churches or non-governmental organisations, charge fees.
“In a country where you have 60 percent of the population who are unable to afford basic nutrition for parts of the year, of course they can’t afford to send their children to school,” said UNESCO’s Watkins.
Children of pastoralists need to herd cattle and fetch water and so don’t have time to trek long distances to school.
GUNS FOR SCHOOLBOOKS
Tens of thousands of children lost out on their education during Sudan’s lengthy civil war. Many joined armed groups and now, with few other career options, are reluctant to lay down their guns.
Efforts to reintegrate former combatants and child soldiers into schools have been limited, Watkins said.
“What we need to see is a big expansion of the second-chance provision in education for children who are of late teenage years or in their early twenties,” he said.
“There’s a very real risk that unemployed youth will be recruited into armed groups of one form or another and we are already seeing that happening.”
There are currently seven militias fighting South Sudan’s fledgling government, causing over 1,500 deaths this year, according to the United Nations.
South Sudan’s gender disparities are the worst in the world. There are almost four boys to every girl in the last grade of secondary school.
“…imagine a country with a population probably now in excess of 10 million, that is bigger than a city like New York or London, with just 400 girls in the top grade of secondary school,” said Watkins.
And of South Sudan’s women, some 92 percent are illiterate.
“A young girl in South Sudan is some three times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than she is to complete primary school,” the report stated.
Watkins criticized donors for failing to provide the region with long-term financing for education, in contrast to the financing reaching countries such as Afghanistan where conflict is ongoing.
“We have to move away from this mindset that says we are going to disburse funds on a three-monthly, six-monthly, one-yearly humanitarian aid cycle and make a five or 10-year commitment in the same way that we have done in Afghanistan, in Rwanda and in Sierra Leone,” said Watkins.
“This is a unique widow of opportunity and the outcomes are not predetermined.”
Education can be a powerful tool for boosting a shared sense of national identity. It can also help to overcome regional disparities by giving young people the skills they need to escape poverty.
Ethnic relations are tense in South Sudan because of perceptions that larger communities are being favoured in government.
“If you’re talking about creating the conditions for building a viable democracy, a sustainable democracy and a credible peace settlement over time, it’s not going to happen without investment in education,” said Watkins.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)