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Pupils of the Salesian Sisters vocational programme for internally displaced adolescent girls in Juba, South Sudan, practice their catering skills in an outdoor learning facility in line with COVID-19 safety regulations. Photo: Salesian Sisters

After many years of war, conflict and upheaval, the state of education in South Sudan is precarious, especially for girls. Only 16% of females over the age of 15 are able to read and write, and in 2013 just 730 girls were enrolled in their last year of high school (from a total population of 12 million). In fact, South Sudanese women and girls are more likely to die during childbirth than complete secondary education.

To address this, the Salesian Sisters in Juba, run a number of projects aimed at supporting girls and women in their education and preparation for the future, including a school, vocational institution and a women’s empowerment centre. One programme in particular provides primary level education and vocational skills to internally displaced adolescent girls.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it had a sudden and devastating impact on the provision of education in South Sudan. In March, the Government closed every education centre in the country. For many children in South Sudan, schools are a safe haven where they receive a daily meal and, for girls in particular, were more protected from issues like early marriage. After the schools closed the Sisters quickly noticed that children, and young people, were on the street trying to find something to eat. The opportunity for parents to find daily work disappeared, so food insecurity increased, and the children looked for food to survive. Girls, in particular, were more at risk to prostitution or to enforced early marriage.

Faced with this reality, the Sisters were determined to continue to support the girls from their school while it was closed. Online learning was not possible due to the lack of electricity or internet. In order to allow girls to keep studying, the project team decided to develop educational materials allowing them to study at home and complete their homework in two-week cycles. The staff made visits to the homes of the students, providing an important psychological support to the girls – reassurance that they had not been forgotten and an opportunity for the girls to talk to someone they knew and trusted if they were encountering any challenges. Food was also distributed to support the girls and their families during this period of severe food shortages.

It is a powerful testament to the efforts made by the project that after the lockdown was eased, and schools reopened, all the girls continued with their education in the school.