Female learners in South Sudan face multiple challenges in accessing and completing their education, whether at the primary, secondary or highereducation level (GPE, 2020; World Bank, 2020). They are vulnerable to early and forced marriage, teen pregnancy and gender-based violence (UNICEF, 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the closure of South Sudan’s schools in March 2020, has exacerbated many of these challenges.
The qualitative research on which this paper is based revealed that many learners were likely to struggle to return to schools when they reopened in May 2021. Female learners reported an increased burden of domestic chores, along with pressure to support income-generating activities for their households, to the point that they felt exhausted and isolated. Furthermore, isolation from peers and teachers who would have usually provided them with psychosocial support had affected their mental health and motivation. Rates of gender-based violence, early/forced marriage and teen pregnancy were anecdotally reported to have increased in the locations visited for this study. Consequently, female learners felt especially discouraged and demotivated about continuing their education.
Ad hoc programmes were implemented by educational stakeholders during the period of school closures, including distributions of food and menstrual hygiene materials, along with awareness-raising campaigns. When provided with comprehensive support, female learners in candidate classes (i.e. those preparing to take exams) showed high rates of participation in alternative education programmes and completion of exams. Varying levels of success were observed with the implementation of distance learning programmes put in place during the pandemic. Home-learning packages, as introduced in some education programmes, seem to have helped motivate and protect learners. However, this type of support was not widely available around the country, and thus there was a need to increase it in terms of both access and scope to help female learners return to school.
The closure of schools in South Sudan undid much of the progress made since independence in increased female enrolment and achievement in education, and therefore presented a complex and challenging context for school reopening. It was clear from the study results that mitigating the challenges faced by female learners in returning to school would require comprehensive support from a variety of educational stakeholders. This briefing paper makes critical recommendations for ensuring female learners continue to learn through periods of school closures, and that the education system is able to adequately ensure the return of female learners now that schools have reopened.
In the short term, we recommend the following:
Providing increased direct financial and material support to female learners;
Equipping female learners with menstrual hygiene supplies;
Creating inclusive school environments for married learners and young mothers; and
Strengthening services and referral pathways for women and girls experiencing gender-based violence, early/forced marriage or teen pregnancy.
Longer-term recommendations include:
Implementing broader poverty interventions to alleviate the economic pressure on female learners to drop out;
Increasing government financial and material support to schools; and
Enhancing data collection mechanisms to monitor the situation of female learners and their well-being.
Furthermore, it is essential that the government of South Sudan and its partners carry out a comprehensive analysis of the COVID-19 education response, with the aim of informing future policies and programming. They must ensure that future disaster response plans adequately address the learning and protection needs of all learners.