International Day of the Girl: Peacekeepers in Malakal speak out for girls and education
It’s a wet morning in Malakal – one of South Sudan’s largest towns.
A group of female peacekeepers (and a few odd men) make their way into Good Shepherd School – one of only 11 schools currently operating in the town.
Within a few minutes of our arrival, curious eyes begin to peer through openings in the mud-walled and iron-sheet structures that hold nearly five hundred pupils.
It’s the International Day of the Girl Child and the peacekeepers, led by the United Kingdom’s engineering taskforce, are here to inspire the young girls to commit to their education. In their country, South Sudan, education for girls has remained a mirage as many in the young nation continue to embrace traditional gender roles.
The headteacher requests that we introduce ourselves to the whole school and make them aware of our mission. One by one, the children – some as young as three years old – are led out of their classrooms.
Our aim is to eventually have a sit-down with the older girls whom we estimated to be about a hundred and fifty, but once the younger children are taken back to class, we realize that our work in inspiring the next crop of educated superwomen is cut out for us.
There are less than thirty girls in total in the three upper classes. Nonetheless we dig in our heels. We include the boys and carry on.
“Good morning, my name is Captain Arianne and I’m a helicopter pilot from Rwanda.”
Hundreds of curious eyes stare at the UN mission’s chopper pilot as she explains what her work entails and what subjects they need to start paying attention to if they want to end up flying planes and other contraptions. At the end of her presentation she asks who wants to be a pilot like her and several hands shoot up excitedly.
“Does anyone have any questions?” she asks.
15-year-old Elizabeth Achan raises her hand and stands up on cue.
“What do you do when you have an emergency while you are flying? How would you manage that?”
Elizabeth and her fellow pupils listen intently as Captain Arianne explains about emergency procedures and segues ever so subtly to why she is speaking to them.
“This is why I’m here to encourage you to dream, and to work from today on your dreams because they can and will come true, just like mine did.”
After the pilot, comes a sweet masala of professions, all bearing the same message. There’s a nursing officer, a flight engineer, a police woman, an environmental engineer. There are gender and civil affairs officers and journalists. There’s even a padre, or pastor in these parts.
In the end, I am inspired, too!
Phoebe Ajang Nyibong a former state gender minister eventually drives the message home with her strong voice that has us all silent and hanging on to her every word.
“I have been a teacher so I know how things are here in South Sudan,” she says, “They will start telling you that ‘you need to get married, that you need to leave school and take care of children.’ Don’t allow it! Stay in school and fight to stay till the end.”
And with that our day with the pupils at the Good Shepherd School comes to an end. The fiery female peacekeepers have done their part in inspiring the future leaders – both male and female. A scratch in the surface for now, but an important one, nonetheless.