When the war came to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in July, 17-year-old Jackie Felix and her mother ran to their local church to escape the tanks, flying shrapnel and gangs of soldiers targeting fleeing civilians. They emerged days later to find their family had been torn apart.
“My brother, we found his body on the road, but my aunt is not found,” says Jackie.
As tens of thousands of people fled to neighboring Uganda, Jackie and her mother decided to stay in Juba, because the teenager wanted to finish her last year of primary school.
In South Sudan, a nation born in 2011 out of decades of war with Sudan, an adolescent girl is three times more likely to die in childbirth than complete her primary education. A new and brutal civil war that started in 2013 has left millions of people starving and homeless and destroyed many children’s dreams of having a better life than their parents as violence and hyperinflation make going to school even harder.
“What I want is an education in order to be an example,” says Jackie. “I want to give hope to people.”
But without support from their family, Jackie’s mother, a tea seller, struggled to put food on the table, let alone pay school fees. Jackie knows that girls who drop out of school have no choice but to get married.
“Most of them are running to marriage to get things, but they get things that are worse,” she says, telling stories of girls who have lost children to disease or have been left destitute by their husbands who have gone to join the fighting.
Jackie managed to go back to school after being referred to Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS), an initiative that gives girls cash transfers to support them through the last years of primary school and into secondary school, the time when most dropouts occur.
The GESS program, funded by UK Aid and run through the South Sudanese Ministry of Education and a network of NGOs, was launched in 2013 and aims to help 200,000 girls stay in school by the time the program ends in 2018. As of October, it had funded 170,000 girls, with 70,000 joining the program this year alone.
“Our country really totally fails at education, so we need help,” says Jackie, who got 2,300 South Sudanese pounds ($25) from GESS in October.
The girls are free to choose how to spend the money, although the program tracks their school attendance. GESS says the majority of girls spend the money on school materials, fees and items such as sanitary towels and soap, without which girls are forced to stay home for big chunks of the school year.
“In four out of five of the surveys we’ve done, the family have opted to allow the girls to use the money for school,” says Akuja de Garang, a GESS team leader.
Jackie is also giving her mother some money to put food on the table, as the cost of even basic items soars.
“So many [girls] drop out because of no money,” says 21-year-old Sonia Taban, another cash transfer recipient who has gone back to complete her final year of primary school.
Sonia and her sister had to drop out of school in 2013 after her parents lost their siblings in the fighting and could no longer support the family. “South Sudan is a country for war, and everything is expensive,” says Sonia.
She hopes to be the first one in her family to finish school “to get a brighter future” and a job that might help her parents and sister, who had to get married to try to escape poverty.
“I wanted myself to not suffer like them,” she says.
GESS is also helping to keep schools in South Sudan from closing down altogether. The economic crisis means teacher salaries often go unpaid or become so worthless that teachers simply abandon their posts to find better paying jobs. “If their money is not paid, they stop teaching, and we end up with nothing in our heads,” says Jackie.
Even before the war, the country’s education budget never exceeded five percent, despite a government pledge that it would increase it to 10 percent, says de Garang.
To stop the education sector from crumbling, GESS gives some schools capitation grants based on the number of enrolled students, and this year it started allowing schools to spend up to 60 percent, rather than 20 percent, on paying teachers, including those on the government payroll.
This year, despite the ongoing conflict, South Sudan’s School Monitoring System shows over 1.3 million children – including over 560,000 girls – enrolled in school, the highest number ever recorded.
“When I become a lawyer, I will get money and help the children who are suffering,” says Jackie, who remembers her own struggles in South Sudan but doesn’t want to leave the country “because it needs development,” and because she believes those lucky enough to get educated should give something back.
“War is just war,” she says. “Even if people are dying, I know that by helping our country, we can have a better place.”
A previous version of this article converted 2,300 South Sudanese pounds to $350. At the current conversion rate, the USD equivalent is approximately $25.