South Sudan: Protect progress in girls’ education from pandemic impacts

Learners in the accelerated learning programme at Mayo Girls’ Primary School in Juba. Photo credit: Mustafa Osman/Oxfam in South Sudan.

Because of patriarchal norms, boys are often prioritized more than girls for education when money is tight. In the extreme situation of the pandemic, this has become even more evident
Adil Al-Mahi
Oxfam South Sudan Country Director.

An entire year of school closures has had severe consequences for children and youth on a global scale. Female learners in South Sudan need more support to ensure the pandemic doesn’t cut short their education.

27 August 2021

The situation was improving for girls in South Sudan: during the years before COVID-19, more girls were attending school, bringing a brighter future within their reach.

But in March 2020 the pandemic hit, and schools were closed for more than a year. As a consequence, the majority of learners in South Sudan have missed an entire year of education – only those facing their final exams were eventually allowed to resume classes towards the end of 2020. Schools fully reopened in May 2021.

“There is a risk that positive developments for South Sudan’s girls will be reversed,” says Adil Al-Mahi, South Sudan Oxfam country director.

In a new briefing paper, ‘COVID-19 and female learners in South Sudan,’ Oxfam and the Institute for Social Policy and Research (ISPR) describe the challenges South Sudanese girls have faced due to COVID-19 and resulting school closures.

The paper is based on research conducted in Juba, Kapoeta, Torit, Pibor and Rumbek, with a focus on schools supported by the EU-funded Building Resilience in Crisis through Education (BRiCE) program. It draws on interviews with female learners, educational stakeholders and government officials.

“Between COVID-19, continuing violence in parts of South Sudan, and inflation, many families are now suffering even harder economically. These families are under immense pressure to survive. And in this kind of situation,” he explains, “the obstacles for girls to stay in school have multiplied.”

To adequately support female learners to continue their education, Oxfam and ISPR recommend: greater financial and material support to female learners and their schools; more inclusive school environments for mothers, married or pregnant learners; and improved availability of services for learners experiencing gender-based violence, early and forced marriage or pregnancy are necessary to adequately support female learners to continue their education.


Although solid data is not available, all indications suggest that the pandemic has led to significant increases in early and forced marriages, teenage pregnancies and gender-based violence.

In schools supported by Oxfam, AVSI and CDI through the BRiCE project, the number of pregnant learners has almost doubled in the last year – and the actual numbers could very well turn out to be much higher.

“In most of the communities, social norms that girls should be married, and become mothers, at a very young age are still prevalent,” Al-Mahi explains. “And once they have become mothers, most of them do not return to school. Girls have to fight incredibly hard to be able to attend school, and thankfully the trend in recent years had been in their favour. However, now that schools have been closed for the majority of these girls, their families find it harder to justify not marrying them off.”

Child marriages are closely linked to increasing poverty. For a family living on the brink of famine, receiving a dowry for a daughter is an attractive opportunity – it means one less mouth to feed, and a source of income to feed their other children.

“Because of patriarchal norms,” says Al-Mahi, “boys are often prioritized more than girls for education when money is tight. In the extreme situation of the pandemic, this has become even more evident.”

Beyond the increased risks of early marriage and pregnancy, South Sudanese girls have had extra domestic chores while schools have been closed – in their homes and the field, from fetching water to selling crops at local markets.

“Many families are now under a lot of pressure, and it will be difficult for them to manage without this extra help from the girls in the future,” says Al-Mahi. “Of course, this relates to both genders. Nonetheless, according to the new briefing paper, the extra chores have had an especially big impact on girls’ education.”

To keep children learning, the government used radio for distance education. However, many children and youth do not have access to radios – and when they do, boys are more likely than girls to be allowed to take time off from their domestic chores to participate.

“As a result,” explains Al-Mahi, “these adolescent girls are lagging behind. And that has created an extra obstacle for them in terms of returning to school.”

In the short term, it will require great efforts to ensure that South Sudan does not lose progress towards gender equity in education.

Many people have a role to play: teachers will need additional training to support female learners; local authorities and decision makers will have to ensure that schools, husbands and parents allow girls to return to school, including those who have become mothers; and the government must allocate sufficient resources to the weak educational system.

“It is possible to ensure that girls return to school,” Al-Mahi says. “We have experienced this in our BRiCE project, where our local colleagues and teachers made great efforts to get the girls back when the final-year learners were allowed to return. The results were amazing, and the girls have been able to sit their final exams. However, such efforts are unfortunately very rare.”

During COVID-19, governments and donors prioritized healthcare systems in the world’s poorest countries. While this makes sense, Al-Mahi explains, it should not be at the expense of other long-term investments. Indeed, good education is indirectly an investment in health.

“Educating girls is extremely important in so many ways,” emphasizes Al-Mahi. “Not only do well-educated women get better jobs and earn more, they also are better equipped to be active citizens shaping the futures of their families and societies. And they become more capable of taking care of their families’ health – which is paramount, if we are to be better equipped the next time a global health crisis hits.”

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the EU BRiCE program and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union