Girlpower in South Sudan

Winning the Primary School Girls’ Football tournament was a major achievement for the Maridi Girls Primary School this year. They had trained hard and won in a country where women’s achievements are mostly ignored. For the Maridi Service Agency it was an important step in their campaign to promote education for girls in the world’s newest country, South Sudan. The whole community came out to celebrate and to acknowledge that despite the continuing conflict with Sudan, the people want peace and the opportunities it provides.

Behind the prize giving is another story – one of people surviving against the odds of conflict, displacement, poverty and disease. It is also a story of South Sudanese self-determination at great cost. After decades of war, independence from Sudan was greeted with euphoria on 9 July 2011. One year later the nascent country is facing massive obstacles to the people’s dreams of a decent life. South Sudan and Sudan remain in conflict, the border issues are unresolved and new conflict in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile has affected or displaced half a million people. In response to the dispute, South Sudan stopped oil production which provided 98% of the government’s revenue. South Sudan can only export the oil through Sudan’s pipeline.

These issues will take time to resolve even as the people on both sides pay the cost. In communities like Maridi, further away from the border, the people are desperate for the development they have never had.
In this new land, the people face great obstacles – food is often in short supply and fuel is imported. There is a demand for education and a challenge to earn desperately needed cash. Life prospects are extremely tough for girls. According to UNICEF only one in four children attend school and less than one per cent of girls complete primary school. It is estimated that around 90% of women are illiterate and that they experience some of the world’s highest maternal and child mortality rates. An average of one in seven children who survive in South Sudan die before their fifth birthday from treatable and preventable diseases.

For the Maridi Service Agency this is the great incentive for their work. Set up by young people in 2000 as the Maridi Student’s Association, the group has gone from strength to strength. They launched the only FM radio station in the area which has been a major means of promoting health and education campaigns. They have started the only high school and three nursery schools as well as running computer and other training programmes. The sports programme is a powerful community activity in a town where most of the people have experienced violence first hand and many still suffer its trauma. Training women in small business skills has also kept starvation at bay and offered them opportunities that they have never had before. Campaigns for HIV/AIDs prevention have played a role in diminishing the spread of disease brought into the community by returning refugees.

One of the most important campaigns for the Maridi Service Agency is the child protection programme. Many of the participants in their programmes have been the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that preys on young people forcing them to fight and commit atrocities throughout the region. The damage to the young people is great and counselling is another aspect to their work. The lack of food and job prospects make this work all the harder. The Maridi Service Agency aims to use every available means to stop the spread of the violence that has been so integral to South Sudanese history.

Winning the football tournament is one step forward for the young women who can help build their new country better than it has ever been before. Giving them the tools they need to craft a new future where they can thrive against the greatest of odds is a story to tell and a cause to support. They have the willpower but simply need the resources to make their dreams come true.