Children in war-torn South Sudan just want to be at school

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

Pictures: Save The Children

They’ve fled from their homes. They’ve seen their lives turned upside down by months of civil war. But the children of South Sudan are desperate to go to school.

Almost half of the 800,000 children who have been internally displaced in the world’s newest country have dropped out of education.

But a report by Save The Children has revealed that those children just want to be back in the classroom. They know it could be their lifeline – literally in many cases.

That’s the message from students, teachers, parents and the wider community in South Sudan, where millions of children are unable to access education and thousands have been recruited into armed groups or are being exploited through child labour.

Save The Children talked to hundreds of children and adults in crisis-hit Unity, Upper Nile, Jonglei and Lakes states. It said the message that came back was crystal-clear: “We want to learn – even during war.”

As a 15-year-old girl from Malakal put it: “Education is more important than food. If you are educated, you can get your own food.”

The report – Hear It From The Children – added: “Conflict-affected communities view education as a fundamental right. When asked to rank the importance of various social services such as health, water, shelter, education, food and play, 28% of children and 25% of community members respectively ranked education as their top priority.”

Peter Walsh, Save the Children’s Country Director in South Sudan, said: “Children instinctively know what is good for them and, as adults, we must respect that and allow them to dream of doing the impossible.

South Sudanese on getting back to school

“If these children are to fulfill their potential as future leaders and respected members of the community, we must do everything in our power to ensure they are given access to educational opportunities – regardless of the ongoing conflict.”

Another clear message from the research was that education should be restarted as quickly as possible during or after emergencies such as war.

Of the children interviewed, 70% of them believe schooling should restart within two months of an emergency. A World at School has been at the forefront of a campaign to establish a funding mechanism to help education in emergencies. Last year only 1% of all humanitarian aid went to education in emergencies, which includes conflicts and natural disasters.

At the Oslo Education Summit in July, the Global Humanitarian Platform and Fund for Education in Emergencies was agreed. World leaders decided to move forward on developing a system to improve how aid is provided in emergencies and urgently address the gap in funding.

Going to school can protect children in conflict areas from recruitment into militias or criminal gangs, stop them going into child labour or being married off young. Education can also teach children how to better respond to and safeguard themselves against dangers such as landmines or gunfire.

A 16-year-old girl from Bor town in Jonglei state told Save The Children’s researchers: “When we are in school, we can feel safe and we learn how to protect ourselves.”

South Sudan was founded in 2011 out of the 2005 peace deal that ended Sudan’s long-running civil war. But fresh violence erupted in South Sudan in December 2013.

Before then, only 10% of children completed primary education and 59% of primary teachers were untrained. Since the fighting began, children have been the target for conscription by armed groups and have suffered physical and sexual violence.

In conflict areas, there aren’t enough classrooms for everyone. So many schools run morning and afternoon shifts or divide learning spaces designed for one class to squeeze in more students.

Many internally displaced children don’t go to school because they are supporting siblings and parents. And displaced communities in South Sudan have virtually no secondary schooling. 

Save The Children found that community members took proactive steps to provide education – with some helping to construct temporary learning spaces and lending their support through parent teacher associations.

A father in Awerial County said: “We beg you to let the school progress well. The only thing that we prioritise here is the school. We will support you if you bring this.”

Read the full Save The Children report here.

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