Where we work in South Sudan, we rarely see children wearing uniforms. When we do, they are tattered and torn. So it didn’t take long for me to notice one particular girl who stood out from the others. She was neatly dressed in a clean, well-maintained school uniform from one of the large schools in town.
I didn’t inquire about her situation, but it was clear that she had to leave her good school in town and move to the village, where the attitude toward education is very different. But I was hopeful for her because she wasn’t giving up. Even with only a handful of students and one teacher at her school, she was putting that uniform on and heading there every day.
I know there are so many girls like her out there in these villages. There are children who do not yet understand the importance of education and may never have the opportunity to experience it. But then there are children like her who desperately want to attend school and cherish every opportunity to learn.
I left there wanting to help her, but I felt good knowing that there was now water at her school and felt confident that was part of the reason she was there. Even if I couldn’t give her anything else, the clean water would save her from walking miles each day, from being sick dozens of days this year and from missing out on an education.
I know what we’re doing is good. I know that we can do more.
This has been an extremely exciting year for Drop. We expanded our field teams in Uganda and South Sudan to include some very talented and experienced people. We also moved to new, extremely needy areas of operation. By the end of summer we had close to thirty-five school water projects either completed or underway. And now we are in the process of launching a new girl empowerment initiative that will work in conjunction with our school water and sanitation program. In South Sudan, we moved into Eastern Equatoria and are starting our activities in Torit County. UNICEF had first suggested we consider moving to this area, as it is one of the most underserved regions in the world.
As with most areas of South Sudan, there is a mixture of schools in Torit County. The town schools, although very basic, at least have buildings, latrines, desks, and children attending classes. There are even some girls. In the villages, it is much different. Most of those schools are under trees, with no water, no toilets, no desks, no chairs, and no girls after the fifth grade! There may be girls in the lower classes but once a girl reaches puberty, she is married off.
I learned that one of the tribes here has an even more disturbing practice, called Girl Compensation. This is an ancient tribal custom of settling legal cases in which someone is accidentally or intentionally killed. The tribe allows the victim’s family is to take a girl from the perpetrator’s family as a form of compensation for the lost family member. Naturally, the girls in this state live in fear. A girl given as compensation essentially becomes a slave of the victim’s family. In these deep village schools, children often miss class because they are at home helping their parents maintain their livelihood. Feeding the family and attending to its basic needs always take precedence over education. This week, we found that most of the children were being kept home to chase birds away from the budding sorghum crops. In school after school, we encountered very few children in class and, each time, were informed they were all home chasing birds. At the Lohehe Primary School, for example, the official enrollment is 420, but on this day there were only a handful of students and just one teacher.
We have a vision for Lohehe Primary School – and for all of the schools in this region. We believe that these schools should be filled with healthy children who want a better future for themselves and their communities. Thanks to you, we’re working to make this vision a reality.
I recently watched a segment of the HBO show Vice about the Fat Farms of Mauritania. In it, a reporter traveled to the West African country to profile the ancient practice of brutally force-feeding young girls to fatten them up to make them more attractive for marriage.
In their culture, a fat woman is seen as a symbol of a man’s wealth. So the fatter the girl, the higher her perceived value. Girls are used to elevate the social status of fathers and husbands, to forge alliances between families. It’s about buying into the girl’s family. The girl herself is just bait.
I spend half the year in East Africa with Drop, constructing water wells at schools to help girls get an education. Without those wells, education is not even an option for many girls in this region. Instead, they are forced to serve the family by spending a major part of every day fetching water. Another way they are meant to serve the family is through their bride prices or dowries.
A dowry is when the groom’s family makes a payment to the bride’s family, usually in the form of cows or money. Protecting this exchange is of great importance to a girl’s family, so her childhood is very often cut short by an arranged child marriage. Many girls are married off as soon as they reach puberty. This avoids the risk that she could lose her virginity before marriage, or worse, that she might get pregnant. These families have been counting on these dowries since the girls were babies. They often need it to feed the family and provide for the brother’s dowries.
In Mauritania, the girls don’t want to eat all of that food. If a girl refuses to eat because her stomach hurts, the family beats her or cracks her feet with a stick, sometimes breaking her toes. If she can not hold down the food and vomits, she is often made to eat the vomit.
These girls are being dragged into a pattern of bad health that they will carry for the rest of their lives. In other parts of Africa, a girl is fed less than her brothers. It’s the same oppression, just opposite extremes.
Whether it is fattening a girl to marry her off or marrying a 13-year-old who then dies trying to deliver a baby that is too big for her small frame, the girl’s health is of little concern. Imagine being a young scared teen delivering a baby in the deep village with no medical assistance. According to the UN, in South Sudan, a 15-year-old girl has a higher risk of dying in childbirth than of finishing secondary school.
Regardless of how it’s packaged, it’s a systematic, long-standing acceptance of objectifying, oppressing and abusing young girls.
From birth, a girl is viewed as a product to be owned by men. Since she will eventually be married into another family, there is generally little concern for educating a girl. It is expensive, and everybody knows she will be traded off at 15 years old in a family arrangement, in which she has no say. And her husband can do with her as he pleases, since he paid for her. Until that time, she is merely a female form to be manipulated and molded in order to meet a standard that will hopefully lead to a higher bride price. After that, her primary duties will be bearing as many children as possible and serving her husband.
In a study conducted by Mifumi, a non-government organization in Toroto, Uganda, 60 percent of the women surveyed believed that bride prices contributed to domestic violence. Women are treated as possessions, which leads to inequality. But the system is slowly changing. In many countries, including Uganda and South Sudan, the government has outlawed underage marriage. But long-held traditions are hard to break, and these laws are rarely enforced in the deep villages.
I enjoy watching Vice, and I think it is a brave show. I just wish they had delved a little deeper into this topic. It’s not about men preferring heavy women – it’s a human rights issue that, fortunately, more and more people are starting to become aware of. We can’t keep looking at situations like Fat Farms and think they are cultural quirks. There is a global humanitarian crisis of oppressing women and girls. Whether it’s girls being sold into sex slavery, publicly flogged for being raped or fattened up to be traded like cattle, these are our wives, our sisters and our mothers. It’s our duty to help them.
It’s not our job to change other cultures. That change must come from within. But I meet girls everyday who desperately desire change. They just need their voices to be heard. And the key is education. An educated girl demands more for herself, and an educated mother demands more for her children. The work we are trying to do with Drop in the Bucket is not just about supplying children with clean water, though that is certainly the first very important step. It is about getting children educated so that they can stand up for themselves and end the cycle of this oppression.
Camboni Primary and Secondary School in Aweil Town was the location of one of the wells we recently repaired. The school was constructed by the Catholic Church, in the 1970s, but they are no longer funding it and the government has taken over. While we were there observing the work, I met the principal, Antonia Adhel. I was impressed that a woman was holding in such a prominent position, which is rare around here. She was also beautifully dressed in the most vibrant African fabrics and was extremely outgoing. I am always interested in talking about strategies for keeping the girls in school and knew for sure that Antonia would have something to share.
She told me that this school had graduated some of the most prominent women in the country, including the State Speaker for the House of Representatives and the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs. But she said I should really meet her aunt Sister Sidonia Aman Tong, who founded the school and was now in her 90s. Little did I know that Sister Sidonia is a legend in Northern Bahr el Ghazal.
We scheduled a meeting for 10AM on Saturday. When I arrived Sister Sidonia was bright and ready to talk. She looked like she was in her 60s and had a mind to match. Her English was better than most and she had a sweetness that is rare in a war-torn area.
She began telling me her story. She was the first black Sudanese nun and it had been no easy task. The story was long and beautiful but basically in the late 30s Italian Missionaries came to Aweil and set up a school and she was determined to go. She wanted to get an education but not only that, she wanted to be a nun. The Sisters had such personal pride and she was extremely drawn to that. But it was unheard of around here to do something like that – everybody gets married and has children!! And she was very beautiful, with only one sister. So her family was relying on her beauty to bring a large dowry of one hundred cows, which her brothers and cousins would also to use to marry.
Sidonia went to the school every chance she got and eventually the nuns taught her to cook and began paying her a small amount to prepare their meals. Finally her brothers came and demanded that if she stay in school that the Bishop must pay her dowry. Sidonia agreed to pay her own dowry with her money from cooking and continued going with school.
She completed school and officially became a nun in 1942. Being the first black nun in Sudan, she met with much resistance. This was not considered appropriate in the culture. Ultimately she settled in Aweil and started running the Camboni.
Her mind had been opened up to so much and she knew that the village girls would also benefit from school. She convinced the Catholic Church to buy her a truck and began going village-to-village bringing the girls back to her school, telling the parents that an educated girl world get 1000-cow dowry!! (I LOVE THS WOMAN!)
During the war, the soldiers from the North occupied Aweil. Although Sister Sidonia kept the school open, they were constantly harassed and threatened by Sudan soldiers. One time she was taken from the school at gunpoint and taken to the barracks. The soldiers threatened her life and insisted she stopped teaching the children English and that she only taught them Arabic. She refused and told them they would have to kill her before she stopped teaching English. Despite the threats she continued teaching the children English, as well as Dinka, their tribal language and Arabic. Somehow she knew somehow that the ability to speak English would be important for their futures, and she was right. English is now the national language of South Sudan.
The soldiers did many things to harass the school, including taking the school uniforms at one point, leaving some children naked. But Sister Sidonia said she was never afraid of their guns and taught the children to be courageous. When the Antonov bombers would come, she would tell the children not to run but to lie down flat and be strong.
I could have stayed all day listening to her beautiful courageous stories but I could tell she was growing tired. The long struggle that ended with the secession of South Sudan was fought by many people from many different walks of life, who knew that one of the bravest would be a nun.
Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness are big words around this region these days. Disaster preparedness refers to unpredictable events like drought and floods.
I experienced it during the dry season last winter when the schools in Northern Bahr el Ghazal closed down so families could migrate to swamps in search of water. But this time I saw the opposite side of the disaster. Annually, 100,000 households in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal are affected by seasonal flooding. Crops are destroyed, causing a further strain on the increasing population, with so many coming back from the north.
When I arrived this time, Aweil was in a state of emergency from intense flooding. Violent storms came every other night and the communities were completely vulnerable in their flimsy, exposed houses. Seventy-eight percent of the population lives in small huts that collapse under the pressure.
Our team had been sending regular updates about the emergency and when I arrived many people had begun relocating onto the roadside, away from the rising waters.
The resiliency of these communities is amazing. People are somehow able to remain friendly as they help each other move their families and meager belongings to higher ground.
Life is already a struggle, without the added stress of disasters. According to official NBeG Strategic Work Plan 2012-2015.
31% of the population has to walk for more than 30 minutes one-way to collect drinking water.
13% have to walk more than one hour.
58% of the population use firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting
30% have no lighting.
97% of the population uses firewood or charcoal as the primary fuel for cooking.
And a staggering 96% of the population does not have access to any toilet facility.
With open defecation commonly practiced, there is a huge risk of disease outbreaks such as typhoid and cholera, from the contaminated floodwater.
While most of the aid community was responding to the emergency by relocating families and distributing food, our team recognized the risky hygienic situation and immediately began an additional campaign of School Led Total Sanitation in the 11 schools we were already working. Each of the schools has an enrollment of between 800 and 1200 due to the large number of returnees from the north. We knew we needed to reinforce some serious sanitation messages, in order for these children to avoid contracting some dangerous diseases from the contaminated floodwater.
We spent a week at each school going class by class with sanitation messages. We worked closely with the Inspector of Schools who was thrilled that we were able to assist. We encouraged the children to use the latrines and stressed the importance of keeping things as clean as possible, explaining that the water is contaminated. We emphasized the importance of hand washing and boiling their drinking water. As usual, the children were very receptive to these messages. Their young minds are open, eager and interested. School is a wonderful place to begin instilling these important concepts. And by starting young, hopefully these ideas remain with the children throughout their lives. Providing clean water is just a band-aid if you are not promoting hygienic practices and safe methods of keeping the water clean for consumption. It’s easy to take for granted that the water coming from our tap is clean. But out here there are many ways of contaminating clean well water, after it’s pumped and before it’s consumed. Our teams are dedicated to ensuring that doesn’t happen.
One afternoon we ran into a local boy named Ngor Garang Tong, a 5th grader at Salva Kiir Primary School, one of the schools we were working in. He had a small after-school business of shining shoes and said he uses his money to help his mom feed his six siblings. He told us he is trying to save more money so he can build his family a safe and secure house. Ngor said he loves school and attends every day, without missing. His favorite class is English. He told us when he grows up he is going to be governor or community leader.
Today is the first-ever International Day of the Girl. Even here in Uganda we are hearing that the Empire State Building in New York City is being lit up pink in tribute. It’s so encouraging that the global community is taking on this important issue!
Today UNICEF South Sudan issued a call to action against child marriage, one of the major challenges facing young girls in this region.
Girls around here are routinely married off as soon as they reach puberty and they have no choice in the matter.
Sarah Awelping is a 19 year-old 6th grader at Salam Girls’ School in Aweil, South Sudan. I met her recently when we were at her school checking on a well we repaired. At the age of 15, like many girls her age, Sarah met and fell in love with a boy from a neighboring village. His name was Garang and the two hoped to eventually marry. Like many around here she is behind on her education because of the war, and understanding the importance of education, they both agreed to finish school first.
In the meantime, Sarah’s parents were approached by 60 year-old man who offered a large dowry of 100 cows for the young girl.
Despite the fact that the man already had four wives, and many children, Sarah’s parents accepted his offer. The family was very poor and 100 cows would mean a period of financial security for them. They would use these cows as currency. If the crops failed, they would trade them for food. They would be used to pay school fees for Sarah’s brothers. And ultimately they would be used to pay the dowries for Sarah’s bothers’ wives. Girls in this region, and much of the world, bear the burden of being considered one of the few commodities for their poor families.
Sarah was devastated when she secretly learned of her parent’s deal. She knew the only way for her to be with Garang would be to run away. So the two snuck away in the night and were secretly married. When Sarah’s parents learned of the union, they threatened to have the marriage annulled. Fortunately for Sarah she had other supporters! Her aunt defended her right to marry for love and eventually some other family members also joined in support. Even though Sarah’s parents were furious over the lost dowry, they eventually gave up.
According to Sarah, girls often suffer terribly when they are given in marriage for a dowry. The husbands consider them property, since they paid for them, and therefore exert complete control over them. According to Sarah, unlike a marriage of love and trust, in these arranged unions the wives must ask approval from their husbands in order to even leave the house, often because the husbands fear they will run away. The relationships are often physically abusive and the wives have no power to resist.
Sarah is adamant that the dowry system needs to change. She says that, although it worked a long time ago, these days education is important. She feels young girls should be allowed to focus on school rather than being forced into early marriage.
Although Sarah and Garang are happily married, she is still enrolled in school. She makes wonderful grades and hopes to one day become a doctor. She says she has seen so many people suffer and die from illnesses and wants to help.
Sarah’s story is like many other girls in the world. Child mothers and child wives are a VERY BIG, REAL PROBLEM out here. These girls would be shocked to know that the Empire State Building is being lit up pink today in honor of them.
They would never imagine that the world cares about them this much!
While doing our project follow up in Uganda, I was thrilled to see how well our Village Savings and Loan Associations were coming along. We now have 13 groups, which each consist of 30 members.
The Village Savings and Loan Association Program or VSLA is a very-structured system of saving, borrowing and lending of money generated from village contributions. It was designed to be simple enough to verbally explain that even illiterate members of the community can easily understand how it works. The reason VSLA’s are able to be so self-sustaining is because any money borrowed must to be used for income-generating activities and all financial decisions must be made by the group. Once a year the interest earned is divided among the association, based on the amount each person has contributed.
Whenever possible, we now set up VSLA’s in villages after we have installed a well or sanitation system. We have found that because the villagers have a financial stake in the project they are far more committed to keeping the well working than when we were previously just setting up water committees.
The first VSLA association I visited was at Alworo Primary School in Lira, Uganda. This school has three groups. When we arrived, we received a very warm greeting from the members, which I quickly noticed were 90% women.
On this particular day, along with wanting to document how the groups were doing, we also mobilized them to discuss a small problem of someone vandalizing the toilets.
Along with promoting small-scale economic development within the community, the VSLA also becomes a well-organized advocate for proper maintenance of the water and sanitation facilities. The group unites the school and community, as they collectively manage the facilities and monitor the water user fees (money paid by the members of the community that can afford to pay to keep the well working). This is also an enormous benefit when addressing problems.
On this day, everybody listened to the concerns, offered suggestions and collectively decided the way forward. They even called for the chairman of the PTA, who wasn’t a VSLA member, and convinced him to bring the issue before the PTA in order to include the parents in efforts to address the problem. This is just an added benefit of this wonderful group. But the most exciting thing is hearing about all of their little businesses.
Alex Ogwang (pictured above) has 7 children and used his loan to start buying animal skins (like goats and sheep). He then sells them to local agents who work for companies making leather shoes, belts and bags.
He uses part of his profit to pay his children’s school fees and recently bought a piglet with the remainder. Although, he’s a little concerned that some of the pigs in the village have been dying from sickness, he likes his little piglet and doesn’t want to sell it, even though he is concerned it might die. He says he really wants to wait and see how big it’s going to grow.
Esther Okulo bought a mama pig with her loan. She sold three of its piglets and decided to keep three. With her profit from the first three piglets, she started cooking meals at the local trading center, an area within the village where people buy and sell things. She has two children and has decided to put most of her profit toward educating them. They are both currently enrolled in a local boarding school.
Polly Akulo has four girls who are all attending school. She buys cassava, a local root similar to potatoes, which she dries, peels and packages for selling. It’s a little bit like village fast food, for people on the go who need something to eat. She is making a decent profit from specializing in her cassava business. After her children’s school fees were paid, she used the rest of her profits to buy a calf. Once it’s full grown, she plans to keep the milk for her family and sell its calves.
Celina Ocen is running several successful businesses and doing very well. In 2003, her husband was shot and killed, leaving her a widow with eight children.
As with everybody I interviewed, Celina is using part of the profit to pay her children’s school fees. Two of them are enrolled in secondary school and another is attending a local private school. One of her businesses is selling chickens. Her family eats the eggs and she sells the chicks to purchase schoolbooks for her kids. Her thriving business has even enabled her to hire people to tend to her garden, an activity that often results in children missing school.
We have found that the most common reason for pupils dropping out of school has to do with money. And VSLAs seem to really help address this in a simple way.
Along with the small businesses, these members are also earning interest on their savings, which is shared out equally at the end of each year.
Overall, I’m learning that attitudes about education differ widely from area to area. The people in these VSLA groups all seem very interested in their children attending school. We are now trying to pinpoint key differences between those who are and those who aren’t invested in education. Could it all boil down to money? Would these parents be more interested in their children’s education if it were not such a financial burden? Is peer pressure a factor? We plan to keep monitoring these groups and collecting data to determine what is working and why.
So far I can tell you that VSLA is an exciting concept that does help! These groups are making a financial impact on the lives of these peoples, in a very sustainable way. We hope to eventually have the funding to form VSLAs as a standard part of our program alongside every well or sanitation system we construct. This is a goal we will strive to obtain.