Lessons from South Sudan: Women and Girl’s Education during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published by
Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)
Written by
Namana Simon Mohandis, Billy Andre – Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)
Coronavirus (COVID-19)

This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series. 

In March 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Sudanese government closed schools across the country barely one month after schools had reopened for the new academic year. Since then, girls and women have lost protective school environments and have been more exposed to sexual and gender-based violence in their communities. Rates of teenage pregnancies have increased. Some parents forced their daughters into early marriage. Some girls even lost hope of continuing with their studies and have migrated to Ethiopia.

Education on Air

Girls’ during Education on Air program

The Education on Air program was introduced to support children to continue learning at home through use of radio handsets. In areas with few or no radio stations, like Upper Nile, ADRA introduced a community-based approach to the Education on Air program, using MP3 speakers, recorded lessons, solar powered devices and batteries. 

The Education on Air program took place between September and December 2020 and covered 95 centers from the 9 supported schools in Maiwut County and 10 in Nasir county. In each school there were 5 centers, which enabled students to learn in a small group of 15 to 20 children to deter the possible spread of COVID-19. Personal-Protective Equipment (PPEs) were also provided, and COVID-19 risk communication was carried out.

ADRA also engaged short-term consultants (both from the national level and locally) to train volunteer teachers to manage the community-based study program. ADRA also continued to provide dignity kits to girls to ensure they do not miss out on learning opportunities due to menstruation. 

The impacts the program have been noticeable, especially for girls:

  • Safe spaces provided for children - 4,523 children (2,310 boys and 2,213 girls) enrolled. Providing safe learning spaces reduced the children’s redundancy, roaming in the community, and child labor. 
  • Reduction in early pregnancy – In July, the Health Department announced that over 200 girls had become pregnant since the start of the pandemic and the subsequent closure of schools in March. Between August and December, ADRA’s staff reported that only 80 girls had become pregnant. Fewer girls were becoming pregnant because they had access to safe learning spaces.
  • Hygiene education prevented the spread of not only COVID-19, but also other contagious diseases – During the Education on Air program, school children learned about the pandemic threats, symptoms, and preventive measures. Hand washing, avoidance of handshake and social distance measures put in place during COVID-19 also prevented the spread of skin, eye infections and diarrhea. 
  • Students successfully sat for National Examinations – When schools reopened in September after 6-month closures, schools had less than 6 months to prepare Primary 8 candidates for national exams. To support this, ADRA recruited 22 educational mentors from Juba, who mentored the teachers and other education officials at the county level and introduced remedial teaching for the primary 8 candidates, so that students could catch up on the content they had missed during the 6-month school closures. With this, seven primary schools of Gainen, Kulong, Pinythor, Pagak, Stephen Duol, Mandeng and Kuetrenke primary schools were able to sit for the Certificate of primary education examinations. There were 202 (156 boys, 46 girls) who sat for the examinations in both Nasir and Maiwut counties from 8th to 19th of February 2021. 
  • Improved learning outcomes – Testimonies from parents, teachers, and education officials show that children’s literacy and numeracy skills improved. They were also introduced to debate and choir clubs. During the project closure workshop, children in the two counties of Maiwut and Nasir presented poems, songs, and speeches in English. Parents and community members were deeply moved by this event, the first of its kind in the area.

Lessons Learned

ADRA staff interviewing a teen age mother.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly exacerbated the fragility of educational access to women and girls. But it has also highlighted opportunities for engaging with communities to strengthen access to education. We suggest the following key strategies to support children, especially girls, to return to school during the pandemic:

  • Raising awareness of the importance of education, particularly for girls, in communities and engaging parents in dialogues
  • Encouraging girls to attend schools with school uniforms, take-home food programs, cash/in-kind support, and dignity kits. Girls also need to have more role models and mentors from the community. 
  • Providing innovative learning programs and opportunities such as Accelerated Learning Programs, Technical and Vocational Programs, Life Skills, and other education opportunities so that out of schoolgirls have access to flexible education opportunities.
  • Equipping schools with separate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities for girls and boys, including facilities and materials for girls for managing menstrual hygiene
  • Equipping schools with play and recreational materials and incorporating girls empowerment activities into school activities and communities. 

Finally, it is very important to engage all stakeholders to advocate for girl’s education. NGOs need to incorporate women and girls in the design, monitoring, and progress of projects for full transparency and accountability. Schools need more trained educators to support girls in managing menstrual hygiene. Communities, including men, need to encourage out of schoolgirls to enroll in schools or Accelerated Learning Programs. Leaders need to advocate and campaign for girls’ education. Everyone has a part to play.

The views expressed in this blog are the authors' own.