By Simon Ingram
NYALA, South Darfur, Sudan, 29 February 2012 – No one quite knows how Qud al Haboob elementary school got its name. From its location, on the dusty outskirts of Darfur’s largest town, Nyala, one may surmise it refers to the blinding haboob dust-storms that sweep periodically across much of Sudan.
Aside from its unusual name, the school has another, more telling, distinction – the number of girl students who attend. Of 186 students, 98 are girls.
Fifteen-year-old Habiba Ahmed is one of them. Now in the fifth grade, she lists Arabic and Quranic studies as her favourite subjects, and dreams of becoming a nurse.
Not even the school’s spartan conditions – none of the classrooms are equipped with chairs or desks – can damping her enthusiasm.
“Some of my friends don’t go to school,” she said. “But education is important because an uneducated person has no chance in life.”
“Barriers to girls’ education”
It’s a message that too many parents in this western region of Sudan have yet to grasp. Too often, girls are kept from school to herd animals or do household chores. Others are married off at a very early age. The student body at Qud al Haboob is an important exception to the rule.
School Director Fatma Elnour says poverty is the main underlying reason that so few parents are willing to invest in their daughters’ education.
“The school fees are small, but they are too much for many families,” Ms. Elnour explained.
Conflict is another barrier to education. The unrest that swept Darfur in 2003 forced Abaker Suleiman to make the painful decision to take his children out of school.
“We had livestock and depended on them,” Mr. Suleiman recalled. “But then the animals were stolen, and we were left with nothing. So I had no choice but to pull all four of our children out of school.”
Now 20 years old, Amani, Mr. Suleiman’s eldest daughter, is well aware of the opportunity that was taken from her.
“When I’m staying at home and I see other girls going to school, it makes me sad,” she said. “In this village, there are more girls at home than at school.”
“Bringing girls into the classroom“
In an effort to boost the number of girls in school, UNICEF is working hand-in-hand with the government and other partners. Central to the strategy is an effort to make both the learning experience and the school environment more child-friendly – not least by providing water and toilet facilities.
“One challenge is the school fees,” says UNICEF Education Specialist Idrissa Diarra. “We need to work on how to alleviate the cost of education for poor families by providing school materials and more support to the community.”
To this end, UNICEF is supporting the State Ministry of Education by constructing learning spaces and providing textbooks and other education supplies – costs which would otherwise have to be met by parents.
By bringing more girls into the classroom, South Darfur – like the country as a whole – has much to gain. Harnessing this human potential will greatly improve Sudan’s potential to meet the enormous developmental challenges that confront it.