A charity working with the government in South Sudan has seen girls' enrolment more than double in one state badly affected by conflict.
A project to get children into schools in war-torn South Sudan has enjoyed extraordinary success. Enrolment is up by 33% in just three years - an extra 60,000 students.
Windle Trust International (WTI) has been working with the government since 2013 to increase access to primary and secondary schools, particularly for girls.
South Sudan has been mired in conflict between government and opposition forces since December 2013. Its civil war spread across the country, fuelling economic collapse and food shortages.
About seven million people currently need humanitarian help. WTI operates in some of the worst-affected states - Western Equatoria, Lakes State and Unity State - where there is widespread fear and violence, forced displacement and famine.
Despite the ongoing troubles, school enrolment increased by a third between 2015 and 2017.
Ian Leggett, Executive Director of WTI, told Their News: “Short-term projects, which tend to be the norm in conflict-affected areas, do not easily capture long-term trends.
"But the Girls Education South Sudan project is exceptional because of the way it has been sustained for four years – and that means we can demonstrate the impact of our work over time.
"The evidence is clear and consistent – across all the states where we are working, school enrolments have increased.”
The figures for Unity State are particularly impressive because access to education there has been limited for decades.
In the last three years, Leggett said, enrolment in Western Equatoria has increased by 10,000 in absolute numbers, representing a 10% increase.
“This is a big step forward but it is dwarfed by the expansion of enrolment in Unity State where the number has increased from 34,000 to well over 75,000,” he added.
“That’s an increase of well over 100% - all the more remarkable when we recall that in the last two to three years hundreds of thousands of people have fled to neighbouring countries or have been forced to abandon their homes and villages.”
Unity State is in the north of the country, on the border with Sudan.
Even in rural communities where there aren’t long traditions of education, families have said we want our kids to go to school, both boys and girls.
“It’s a very contested area - some parts of the state are under control of the government while some are under control of the opposition,” said Leggett.
“There’s been a huge amount of displacement. Last year famine was declared in South Sudan for the first time in decades and Unity was one of the states affected."
At a time of fear and displacement due to war, WTI thought initially that school enrolment in affected areas would drop off - but the opposite has happened.
Leggett said: “When people are scared for their lives, often schooling becomes less of a priority. But what seems to have happened is that at a time of disruption in people’s lives, with fear and anxiety, the one thing people like is a degree of normality, structure and hope for the future.
“And so rather than neglecting schooling, what seems to have happened is - even in rural communities where there aren’t long traditions of education - families have said we want our kids to go to school, both boys and girls.
“Even in Unity State, one of the most badly affected states, 40,000 more girls have enrolled - more than a 100% increase in just three years. It’s quite phenomenal.”
Up to 70 local people work for WTI in South Sudan. Its programme has three strands - the first involving encouraging children to attend school through a cash transfer system.
If children enrol in school and attend regularly they get paid just under £20 a year. WTI monitors their attendance by visiting schools and via mobile phones that the students must register.
Leggett said that even though some children have been forced to move around due to the fighting, many still manage to attend schools, such is their appetite to learn.
The second strand of the project is to improve the quality of education, which also involves ensuring teachers get to schools.
Thankfully, schools and teachers have not been targeted in the way they have been in other countries like Nigeria by Boko Haram. Both sides in South Sudan’s conflict appear to want their children to attend school.
The third aspect is about changing community attitudes, especially regarding girls’ education. For some communities in South Sudan, it isn’t normal to send girls to school and many are married at a young age.
But WTI has been trying to change such attitudes by engaging with local people and school management committees - efforts that have proved hugely successful so far.
The programme - costing around £60 million over five years - is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development. Although it is due to end in September, there are plans to continue WTI’s work in South Sudan.
WTI also has worked in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. The UK-based charity’s work is the legacy of Dr Hugh Austin Windle Pilkington, who dedicated his life to helping refugees access further education.
Dr Pilkington drew inspiration from young Ethiopian refugees he met through his academic work at Nairobi University in the 1970s. At that time, he became increasingly concerned with the plight of African refugees arriving in Kenya and the need for educational development generally in the country.
In 1977, Windle Trust Kenya was established to support the education of talented refugee and Kenyan students and the organisation has since expanded.