‘I need to finish my education, graduate, then I can think about marriage!’

Using food to keep girls in school in South Sudan

Tomson Phiri
Dec 6, 2018 · 5 min read
Atap Garang, (right in white top) enjoys a family meal, asida — a thick porridge made from sorghum served with a sauce — with her siblings at their homes in Aweil. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

“Education is my priority. I want to be someone, I want to be a doctor!” says Atap Garang.

At 16-years-old, Atap is very clear about what she wants in life, something you don’t usually find in most children her age.

She is assertive, driven and looks set to succeed where many have failed.

She remains in school thanks in part to an ambitious programme that aims to keep girls in school by providing food on condition they attend classes regularly.

But not many of her age mates are so fortunate — in a country notorious for its high levels of child marriages — with more than half the girl-children married before their 18th birthdays.

Atap is one of 16,000 girls who get to take food home provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) in return for her regularly attending classes.

How it works

Scholars sing during assembly at their school in Aweil. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

Known as the Girls’ Incentive, the initiative is part of WFP’s school feeding activities in schools where overall girls’ attendance is low. WFP gives take-home food rations to girls as an incentive for attendance that also improves their food security.

To qualify, girls must be enrolled in school and attending Grades 3 to 8 — the stage when girls are at most risk of dropping out of school as they reach adolescence. To receive food, girls must attend at least 80 percent of classes. They take the rations home each month once their attendance is certified. Each girl receives 10 kg of cereals and 3.5 litres of vegetable oil.

But food alone cannot keep girls in school.

Family support

Anyang Deng, Atap’s mother prepares a family meal — asida with sorghum provided by WFP. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

It’s only possible for children to stay in school when the family is supportive. Anyang Deng, Atap’s 36-year-old mother, knows this lesson all too well.

“My dream is to see Atap graduate,” she says “Good life is only possible with education. If one is educated they have more chances to succeed.”

She is raising Atap and her six siblings with her sister’s help. After civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, her husband, Atap’s father, crossed into Sudan in search of work. It’s been close to three years and he has not returned. With an economic downturn in Sudan, he found the going tough and can rarely send money home, leaving Anyang to fend for the family.

But, amid all the challenges, the family fights on in pursuit of its dreams.

Like many in her community, Anyang was unable to complete her education and dropped out of school to start her family. But there the similarities end.

Unlike most of her compatriots whose dreams of success in life have since passed, her dreams have just been deferred. She is as determined as her daughter to realize her dreams — only because they will be possible through her children.

“I wanted to be a doctor as well, and it didn’t work out. But I think Atap will do it on my behalf.” she says.

A tough life

Girls play during break-time at school in Aweil oblivious of the challenges that surround them. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

As if the conflict isn’t enough of a challenge, deep-rooted cultural norms and practices have conspired to make the situation for women and girls worse. The odds are stacked heavily against the average girl-child in South Sudan realizing her dreams.

Here, a girl’s destiny is determined at birth. Raised to cater to the needs of her male family members through cooking, cleaning and serving—which are seen as preparation for her predestined role as a future wife and then a mother.

While South Sudan’s constitution outlaws child marriage, it is still widely practiced. Nearly one in 10 girls are married by the age of 15.

A class of girls listens to their teacher in a classroom in the capital, Juba, South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

In this often-unforgiving patriarchal society, where many parents prefer to have a boy-child to a girl-child, life is an constant challenge for the girls.

“Boys have it all easy here” Atap says, with a tut-tut of annoyance.

It is widely believed that a boy is the heir who will preserve family lineage, its name and pride. As such, boys are prioritized for education and training.

And the result is there for all to see. Some 90 percent of South Sudan’s 6 million women can neither read nor write. Women are largely confined to their household and occupy the bottom of the social ladder.

Multiple benefits

Girls complete the verification process to receive their take-home food ration with the help of an aid worker. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

But WFP’s take-home food ration has helped reduce drop-out rates, provides food in homes and has brought more out-of-school children back to the classroom. For Atap, attending school has been her excuse to delay potential suitors. Her favourite school subject, Christian and Religious Education, is a source of much inspiration with teachings of a promise of a better life ahead.

“Since inception, we have seen the impact of the take-home food ration,” says Adnan Khan, WFP’s Country Director in South Sudan. “The food has been particularly helpful during the tough times in the country to maintain a sense of stability and ensure a whole generation does not miss out on education.”

A scholar carries a bag of sorghum provided by WFP as part of the Girls’ Incentive. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

In 2018, with support from donors such as Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Germany and the United States of America, WFP provided take-home food rations to more than 16,000 girls in South Sudan.

From 2019, with support from the European Commission, WFP plans to expand the take-home food ration to include boys, particularly in schools with low rates of boy-children enrolment. Education will change South Sudan for the better.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme