Voices: Getting girls to stay in school in South Sudan

"I have been asked why I think this project was a success, and the answer is simple. We asked the right questions... We didn't assume we knew all the answers." - Shamima Tasmin, Education, Gender and Community Participation Adviser

Shamima with school girls

​"​High dropout rates for girls in South Sudan mean that most girls who start school do not finish. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), only 6 percent of girls complete primary school, one of the lowest rates in the world.

"UNOPS is working with UNICEF and the governments of Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States to construct schools across South Sudan. The school buildings have been designed to make it easier for girls to attend, with safer access and separate toilets, and this has already made a difference. But while their access to school has been improved, girls still drop out at an alarming rate and we wanted to find out why.

"We knew that there were numerous reasons that girls dropped out of school – early marriage, unsupportive environments at school and at home, and a lack of female teachers. But when I asked teenage girls across the country, really asked them, why they didn’t come to school, they told me the main reason was due to menstruation. For five school days each month, they were unable to attend school because they did not have sanitary napkins. Due to all the days missed, they fell behind in their school work, and gradually lost interest and became demotivated. Eventually, many of the girls dropped out of school.

"This was a sensitive issue that had never been addressed, but once we had this information the next step was simple. We designed and implemented a programme that trained interested mothers in the community how to make sanitary napkins. As soon as the girls had access to free sanitary napkins we saw an immediate rise in school attendance rates.

"The trained mothers went on to train other interested mothers and girls to use the equipment, and over time, there was a large group with the necessary skills to make sanitary napkins. The various project activities, including community mobilization and awareness, teacher training, agricultural training and the production of sanitary pads has reduced the number of cases of girls dropping out of school before grade 8 by 39 percent.

"I have been asked why I think this project was a success, and the answer is simple. We asked the right questions, of the right people, at the right time and designed the programme accordingly. We didn't assume we knew all the answers.

"We can fall into the bad habit of thinking of a project as a race, completed from start to finish in the quickest time possible. But we need to think of it in terms of what happens after the project is finished. Will there be quality outcomes for the community? Will the products we develop continue to be used? And the only way we can make sure that happens is by engaging the community in a meaningful way, throughout the life of the project. From stakeholder analysis, concept note development, project design and implementation, through to monitoring and evaluation. We need to understand their needs, from their perspective.

"The community engagement model we used on this project has now been developed into a toolkit, which is being adopted across all UNOPS projects. When I think about the project, there are so many things I am proud of, and so many areas where we can do more for girls and education in South Sudan. But the potential of the community engagement toolkit excites me the most, for how it can help improve all the work we do at UNOPS."

The ongoing provision of sanitary napkins, for free or at a reduced cost, is supported by this UNOPS project in South Sudan.