Although more of the world’s children are going to school than ever before, and the gender gap is shrinking globally - according to a UN report launched on Monday - little of this progress is visible in south Sudan, relief workers told IRIN.
Ben Parker, communication officer for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, said: "I guess we are probably at the bottom. If southern Sudan were a country it would be one of the worst in the world in terms of primary school enrolment, and it would have one of the worst gender gaps."
Monday’s report, entitled: "Progress for Children" and published by UNICEF, said the barriers keeping girls out of school in the developing world not only robbed them of future opportunities, but also impacted on their very health and survival.
"Education is about more than just learning," UNICEF’s executive director, Carol Bellamy, said during the launch of the report in Geneva. "In many countries it’s a life-saver, especially where girls are concerned. A girl out of school is more likely to fall prey to HIV/AIDS and less able to raise a healthy family."
A school baseline assessment report, published by UNICEF and the Africa Educational Trust in December 2003, noted that only two percent of children in south Sudan completed eight years of primary school. This report was based upon visits to an estimated 90 percent of all schools in southern Sudan.
"According to the school baseline report, only 2,109 children were in grade eight across all of SPLM/A [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army]-controlled areas of south Sudan; 433 girls and 1,676 boys. Basically, one in four is a girl," Parker told IRIN on Tuesday.
In 2003, the total primary-school-age population in southern Sudan was an estimated 1.4 million, according to the joint report.
Emily Oldmeadow, programme manager for Africa Educational Trust, told IRIN that educational data for south Sudan was distorted by the situation in the southern region of Equatoria.
"[The situation in] Equatoria is much better than the rest of southern Sudan," Oldmeadow she said. "In Upper Nile [state, in eastern Sudan] you are likely to find only one or two girls present when you visit a primary school.
"There are huge disparities. In some counties you might find 15 primary schools, while others hardly have any, and the children are simply sitting underneath a tree," she added.
Parker said the school baseline report found that only 10 percent of the estimated 1,600 primary schools were made of brick or stone. Low enrolment, he added, was a result of few schools, and a lack of good teachers and school supplies, combined with the effects of decades of war, gender inequality, and prohibitive school fees.
Jeff Seed, chief of party of CARE’s Sudan Basic Education Programme - funded by the US Agency for International Development - told IRIN: "A huge problem, clearly, is enrolment, but with the influx of people returning to southern Sudan, there is also a lack of qualified teachers.
"Building schools is relatively straightforward, but teachers you can’t train overnight; it is a long-term project," he added, noting that the number of female primary-school teachers - currently about seven percent of all teachers - had to be expanded.
Parker said UNICEF wanted "to expand enrolment, but also retain the children already going to school, so we are increasing the number of schools while enhancing the quality of education through the training of teachers and the provision of school materials. Last year, we built 147 girl community schools."
To provide a framework conducive for a massive scaling-up of enrolment, international agencies working in education are supporting policy development, capacity building and coordination with the SPLM/A Secretariat of Education (SoE), based in Rumbek, the designated capital of south Sudan.
Seed said CARE was "working hand-in-hand with the SoE to develop a unified teachers education curriculum - on how to train primary school teachers - to replace the Kenyan and Ugandan curriculae that were previously being used.
"We are shooting for the end of the year - and possibly sooner - to finalise it," he added, noting that CARE had already trained over 1,000 SoE education officials.
In order to realise universal primary schooling by 2015 - one of the eight Millennium Development Goals that world leaders set themselves at a UN summit in 2000 - and make gender equality a reality, a radical shift in thinking and policy was required, UNICEF’s Progress for Children report warned.
"A quantum leap is needed both to break down the barriers keeping girls out of school and to make school available to all children," Bellamy observed.
Some 125 out of 180 countries for which data was available were on course to reach gender parity by 2005, Monday’s UNICEF report estimated, but an extra US $5.6 billion per year would be required to achieve universal primary education around the world.