Interview: Awut Deng Acuil
‘When we invest in girl education, we invest in a nation’
Awut Deng Acuil, South Sudan's Minister for General Education and Instruction, was in Bangladesh recently (13 -17 May) visiting a number of BRAC's education facilities including early childhood development centres and other initiatives. BRAC works closely with South Sudan's education ministry. It is operating 101 community schools and reaching 6,788 learners through local teachers across four states of South Sudan.
In an interview with Prothom Alo's Ayesha Kabir, Minister Awut Deng Acuil, speaks about the state of education in her country, BRAC's programmes there, her visit to Bangladesh and more.
There is a sense of commitment and determination reflected in her demeanour. Awut Deng Acuil first points to certain parallels between the two countries that makes it meaningful to learn from the Bangladesh experience.
"We share a common history," she said, "We both emerged from a liberation struggle. Bangladesh managed to recover from that history and has progressed in development. In South Sudan we are starting from scratch.
“The purpose of my visit is really to learn from Bangladesh's experiences. What has worked in Bangladesh in terms of education is what has brought me here. To learn. We cannot reinvent the wheel, but we can learn from each other.”
So how has her visit to Bangladesh? What did she see? Where has she been?
She replies, “First of all, let me express my gratitude to BRAC leadership. I was invited by the executive director, the person with whom we have worked very closely in South Sudan on community and girl education.
“It was a very interesting visit. I went to community schools, especially the play labs. We also visited the slum areas where you have these simple structures with colourful flowers. The teachers are passionate, committed to give their best to the children. I was amazed by the environment set up for these children to actually learn. It is a right environment for them to learn.
“I have learnt a lot. There is community participation. The community makes their contribution in their own context, with their own resources. That is very enriching for children. It keeps your values, your culture, your history, your identity. I think that is the best approach. It will make us value education, as a community, as society. The commitment itself is that these are our children and we must make contribution. So it’s not just a responsibility of the government. It is not just the responsibility of BRAC. But it is our responsibility as a community. We can work together to achieve the ultimate goal which is better life for all.”
She elaborates how BRAC has been making a difference in South Sudan, in education, particularly for girls and for those who missed out because of the liberation struggle and other reasons.
The commitment itself is that these are our children and we must make contribution. So it’s not just a responsibility of the government. It is not just the responsibility of BRAC. But it is our responsibility as a community
“BRAC is focussing on community girl education and it is a very popular programme for us,” she says. “It is very successful. It has given the people who have joined, mostly female, an opportunity to sit for examinations. Instead of spending eight years, they spend four years. Instead of spending four years, they spend two years. So they catch up with everybody who is going through formal education. That is the only way to address those who did not have opportunity during the war, to have opportunity to continue with their education, or start their education. So this is a programme that we are doing together with BRAC. We want to scale it up to other places that are hard to reach so that those who do not have opportunity can also join and empower themselves through education. This is a tool that will bring change for all of us as a community, as a country, as people. It is not just about knowing how to read and write, it is for a better life.”
Awut Deng Acuil was happy to have observed BRAC’s childhood development programme, something that may well be replicated in the South Sudan context. “The other programme we want to start with BRAC is actually early childhood development education. Here I have seen something unique -- the play lab. This is also something we have to have a look at in terms of curriculum in our own context. This will also promote a foundation for children before they get to formal education. I have also learnt from BRAC that play has a major role in education. You learn through play. Children like to play so they can also learn through play and appreciate each other and work as a team.”
The South Sudan education minister elaborates on the state of education in her country and what is being done to turn things around.
“In South Sudan we have plans in place because cultural practices and barriers often lead to selection between a boy and a girl. If a family is to choose who is to go to school, they will choose the boy to go to school and leave the girl at home. I want to describe that in the words of one of our leaders who is a writer and was recently conducting conferences with BRAC practitioners on issue of girl education. He said, ‘When we invest in girl education, we invest in a nation.’”
“We now have dialogue with the communities. We tell them, you are a community leader with maybe 200 or 300 households and 500 children in your community. You want to change the environment you live in, you want to develop. How will you develop without your citizens? Boys and girls are our children. How do you choose between one to go school and the other one is left behind? You will better become a role model in your community and send your children to school, girls and boys. You will see the environment you live in will change when you empower both.”
In South Sudan the population of women is now projected as 54 per cent. This is a force that can contribute to development meaningfully, the minister says, adding that there is no room for them to be left behind. Equal rights for all -- this is the action.
Education is important, but the government cannot do everything alone. Partnership is vital and BRAC has played major role in that area in Bangladesh and has extended its service to other countries, including South Sudan
“We are taking ‘Education for All’ to the communities, to discuss with them, to have dialogue with them, to say education is not a bad thing for a girl.”
The response has been positive. She says that the community leaders tell the government, “Give us female teachers and create girls schools and then we are ready to cooperate and bring children to school.”
“Just last month one of the community leaders came to me and said, I built a girls school and now have 160 students. Can you help me? I said, yes, with teachers, books and water. He also said, ‘You want to go to the moon? You will not go without women!’”
Child marriage is also an issue South Sudan struggles with. The leadership in a certain state there took a decision to make a law banning early child marriage and sending girls to school. “So you can't marry off a girl if she is not 18. The law was launched last month and we are asking the rest to do the same.”
“Our president has taken the lead in this campaign,” she says, “He was moving from one state to the other, saying, please, don't marry the girls off. They have to finish their university. Marriage will be later. Send everybody to school. You talk about affirmative action. Where will I get people? Where will the women come from if they are not sent to school? Education is for all.”
“Then on 6 February he declared free education, compulsory for all. We are now implementing that. Everybody has been pushed to send their child to school. So this is another strategy we have come up with to make sure that children are sent to school.”
There are 2.8 million children out of school in South Sudan and the education ministry is working with determination to tackle the challenge. “When the president declared free and compulsory education, the response has been huge. I am happy to handle a positive challenge, which is overcrowded classes. I visited one of the schools and it had 1,852 students. The teacher took me to the class and they had 120 students in the class. I said, wow! This is a positive challenge. So what we need to do to create more classrooms and get more teachers since the community has sent their children to school.”
“The other thing is what we are doing with BRAC -- alternative education, community girl education. We have also introduced what we call pastoral community education. People move with their cattle and children, so when they go, the teacher is there to put them in class and continue learning. So we have different strategies to reduce the number of out-of-school children.”
“Another area will be technical schools. We need it badly. We must have professionals who will help in the development of our country. We will also have community outreach to be part of life skill development so that they can help within their communities. That is what we are doing to reduce the number of out-of-school children. We are looking ahead so within a few years South Sudan can be free of illiteracy.”
Interestingly, South Sudan didn't close schools during the Covid pandemic. Awut Deng Acuil says with pride. “We were the only country in the region that kept schools open, and no one got sick, not the teachers, not the learners.”
On a parting note, she said, “Education is important, but the government cannot do everything alone. Partnership is vital and BRAC has played major role in that area in Bangladesh and has extended its service to other countries, including South Sudan.”