Women's education and economic participation are becoming hot issues in South Sudan due to programs sponsored by the United States government. These programs are designed to help women in the fledgling nation attain equal status so that they can have a part in the development of South Sudan's political and economic systems.
The new nation of South Sudan, which broke away from its parent nation of Sudan after a referendum in 2011, is one of the most impoverished nations in the world. Although South Sudan is approximately the size of France, it has less than 200 total miles of paved roads and lacks even the most basic utility services.
Historically, in Sudan, the north had money and oil refineries and was primarily controlled by Middle Eastern Muslims. The southern half is inhabited by black Africans and, while rich in oil resources, has no refining facilities. South Sudan has been oppressed significantly by those in the northern parts of the nation who have a vested interest in continuing to exploit those resoueces.
Given its extreme poverty, it is unsurprising that educational attainment is low in South Sudan. Educational attainment depends strongly on gender, with 30 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls completing eight full years of primary education.
According to USAID, one of the biggest problems in South Sudan for young women is the cultural phenomenon of early marriage. Traditionally, girls in South Sudan are considered to be of marriageable age when they are just 13 years old. Many of these marriages are forced and arranged to much older men, leaving women and girls with little agency in who they will marry, when they will reproduce, and how they will afford to live.
Child brides are unable to complete their educations and will, on average, earn substantially less over the course of their lives and have significantly fewer opportunities for economic advancement of any kind. However, when girls in South Sudan attend school past the age of marriage, they are often subjected to mockery and derision. Changing some of these cultural norms and helping the South Sudanese to accept women's educational attainment is critical to ensuring that girls are able to stay in school long enough to have a hope of economic independence.
USAID's programs in South Sudan have been designed to keep young girls in school, even when they are of an age that would traditionally have made them available for marriage. In order to encourage educational attainment, they pay tuition stipends and have extensive mentoring programs that are designed to help girls overcome any obstacles they may have to continuing their education.
In addition to helping girls directly, USAID has also implemented programs to help government officials in South Sudan recognize the problems women are facing there. These programs teach government officials how to advocate for women's rights at both the national government level and at at the local level.