JUBA (AlertNet) - It took years of pleading before Jane Aketch persuaded her parents to send her to primary school in the dusty bush of South Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state.
Although her parents wanted her to learn how to read and write, like most of the communities in Aketch's home county of Magwi, they did not place particular importance in furthering a girl's education.
"Generally, in South Sudan, girls are supposed to stay at home and clean, while boys attend school," explained the 14-year-old, who is one of five daughters.
Aketch said her sisters all dropped out of school before completing their primary education.
"My parents didn't approve of us going," she said, shyly looking away.
Yet boosting education will be vital in developing South Sudan as it prepares to become an independent country on July 9, following January's referendum on secession, which was part of a 2005 deal to end two decades of civil war.
Schooling is poor across the board in South Sudan, an overwhelmingly rural region. There is only one teacher for every 1,000 primary school students and 85 percent of adults do not know how to read or write.
For girls and women, it is even worse. UNESCO, the United Nations' (U.N.) educational and cultural organization, estimates that nine out of 10 women are illiterate.
VALUING THE 'GIRL-CHILD'
South Sudanese parents keep their daughters away from school for many reasons. Sometimes, it is a reluctance to send girls to mixed-gender schools. More often, a girl is considered a source of wealth to her family for the "bride price" or dowry she brings upon marriage, and so is married off at a young age.
In some communities, an educated woman who carries a pen rather than a bundle of firewood is considered a disgrace and by virtue of her education may attract a lower dowry.
"I was married off at a very tender age," recalls Rosemary Ajith. "My parents were given so many cows by my husband. Up to now, my younger sisters are not allowed to attend school," she added. "They are often told to follow my example."
Although the tradition of paying "bride price" is ancient, many South Sudanese women are now calling for the practice to be abolished.
"Our communities have to start valuing the importance of educating the 'girl-child' child," said Julia Duany, undersecretary in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs in Southern Sudan's government.
"Too much attachment to some of the cultural norms that are negative towards girls will remain a set-back to the girl-child education policy."
Lise Grande, the U.N. deputy resident and humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, said Sudanese women themselves should lead the campaign to abolish dowry, rather than U.N. aid agencies.
"If Southern Sudanese women feel that dowry payment should be abolished from their societies, it's upon them to take the lead in the struggle to achieve this," Grande said. "That struggle will not be easy to achieve in reality."
Other major obstacles girls face in gaining an education include sexual harassment, early pregnancy and child-to-child, according to a 2008 study by the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
The study, based on findings from UNICEF's 2006 Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces, also raised concerns about poorly educated and trained staff handling expanding class sizes, limited supervision at county and state levels as well as low motivation causing teachers to quit the profession.
An estimated 340,000 children were enrolled in primary schools at the time Sudan's 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, according to UNICEF, and in 2009 primary school enrolment was at 1,362,941 - about 860,000 boys and 502,000 girls. But, according to UNESCO, less than 2 percent of these children complete primary school education.