Children starved of hope anda future

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Education is anoverlooked but major casualty of the Sudanese civil war. Sally Ramsden reports

The crisis in southern Sudan is threatening even the most basic schooling in the war-torn region, aid agencies warn.

Although images of starving mothers and children have been flashed across TV screens, the real problem, say observers, is not famine, but conflict. This creates hunger and disrupts education which can help restore hope and security for thousands of children.

In southern Sudan the latest round of civil war has been raging for 15 years as African rebels fight for independence from the Islamic government in Khartoum, northern Sudan.

Emergency relief flights organised by Operation Lifeline Sudan, the United Nations body responsible for delivering aid, have been restricted by the government in the North - creating a backlog of assistance.

"When you have only one flight going in and limited space you face the difficult choice of putting on food aid to save lives in the short term or education kits to help people develop and become self-reliant in the long term," says Gillian Wilcox, an information officer at OLS headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

"While food aid is obviously a priority in the worse-affected places right now, it is vital that support for education continues, so that people learn basic skills and can help rebuild the country when peace comes."

Outside the current pockets of fighting, rudimentary schools are still operating in most areas. Aid agencies estimate that there are more than 1,000 schools serving nearly 200,000 pupils, just under a third of the estimated total school-age population in southern Sudan.

Some schools are no more than a group of children meeting under a tree for lessons taught by volunteers who have only had a few years of basic education themselves. Others have classrooms but no books, paper or pencils.

School kits supplied by the United Nations children's fund provide chalk, pens, exercise books and other basic materials which can help get education off the ground and keep it going in unstable conditions where people are constantly fleeing. The kits also offer an incentive to teachers, who are unpaid and rely on their local communities for food and shelter.

"But getting education supplies in is a nightmare," says Mima Perisic, OLS education officer. "We've had school supplies ready since February but the suspension of flights and limited capacity when flights do go in means that only about 20 per cent has been dropped so far. Even then distribution is difficult due to lack of roads and the ongoing instability."

International agencies agree that teacher training is key in efforts to develop education in the region, despite the immense logistical difficulties and lack of continuity caused by the war. Southern Sudanese educators in exile have developed a series of short training modules which the volunteer teachers can take during breaks in the fighting.

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