Anyone working to give girls in rural South Sudan an education faces several challenges: instability and renewed conflict since the country gained independence in 2011 after five decades of civil war; the world’s highest illiteracy rates; and a tradition of child marriage that sees more than half of the country’s girls becoming brides before the age of 18. Then there is the fact that, in many places, a girl’s worth is based solely on how many cows she can be traded for when she is married off.
“There is a huge number of girls who are going to school and not completing primary school because of child marriage,” says Sister Orla Treacy, head of Loreto Secondary School in Rumbek, in central South Sudan. The girls’ boarding school, located in the capital of the country’s Lakes State, is trying to buck that cultural trend by encouraging parents to push their girls into school instead of marriage and by teaching girls to demand a greater say in their futures.
Opened in 2008, Loreto school has become one of the country’s most prestigious secondary schools, with 201 students currently enrolled. No mean feat considering it’s in an area where cow dowries are common and battles over cattle wealth are protracted and deadly. “None of [the girls’] mothers were educated to secondary level, so you’re talking about first-generation education,” says Treacy. “The school is breaking all cultural standards, and it’s trying to create a new path, which is challenging for everyone, including the girls themselves.”
In 2013, a new and brutal war started in South Sudan that has caused millions of people to flee their homes and numerous warnings of impending famine or economic collapse. In a country where people are desperate and dying, some parents use their daughters as “cash cows” to save the family from ruin or starvation in the short term.
Every six months, Loreto has to deal with relatives trying to take girls out of the school, especially if her father passes away or the wider community wants to reclaim the cattle dowry that they invested in her mother. “The girl is the bride wealth; she is the property of the clan,” says Treacy.
Despite an enrollment process that makes parents commit to keeping their daughters in Loreto for four years and agree to being reported to local authorities if they break the clause, police and local leaders are often powerless to enforce the law in a state where gun ownership and dowry stakes are high.
“The authorities find it very difficult to support us. We have a very good neighboring chief, but even he has been threatened with guns by parents,” says Treacy, whose staff nevertheless turn up at villages to try to stop the marriages of their girls. “At least people know that in Loreto, we fight every case. We lose some, but we fight them.”
The school also plays an important role in building peace among girls while the young men in their families get dragged into the centuries-old practice of cattle rustling, which has escalated into decades of bloody warfare between rival clans or communities.
“We’re able to bring all the girls from different rival communities to live together, and that’s been fantastic,” says Treacy, adding that many pupils and their parents are initially anxious about the school being located in Rumbek, where people have the reputation of being “lions,” always on the attack. Despite frequent sporadic gunfire around the school, it has never closed. Pupils learn how to take cover during fire drills that now include what to do in case of extended gunfire.
“The issues from outside do get in,” she says. “We have brothers who are killed by brothers of girls at the school. As much as they can, the girls try to grow together as sisters in the school, knowing that there is so much against them outside.”
Among the first batch of girls who graduated from Loreto, several have gone on to university to study business, nursing and social work. “My hope is that with more and more girls graduating here, they will act as a support to each other,” says Treacy.
For one of the students in her last year at Loreto, that means stopping the violence, especially toward women. “When I was young I used to see these things – a lot of beatings … happening against women,” says Jennifer, 20. “I used to hate it, but I just didn’t know what it was that I could do to help.”
Like many of her classmates, Jennifer started school late and grew up watching her teen friends get dragged out of class to get married. She’s also helped other girls to stand firm in their refusal to wed men they don’t like or know. It’s school that gives her the strength to say enough is enough, she says.
“Teachers talked to us and they gave us hope and they told us, ‘You can do this and you are capable of that,’ and I started to think that maybe I could do this as a lawyer,” she says. “I think as we get educated we become lawyers and we can change some of these abusive things that are being done against women.
I think we will be able to stand up and to change some of these things.”