By Kimberly Wolf
This July, I traveled for two weeks as a volunteer with the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation in Marial Bai, Southern Sudan with two friends: Sarah, a freelance journalist with the UK Guardian, and Danielle, a Seattle-based domestic violence counselor.
The three of us initiated a twice-a-week girls club at a secondary school established by Valentino’s Foundation to provide a safe space for girls to discuss reproductive health issues and offer peer support. We also conducted meetings with women entrepreneurs in the market to increase their access to resources.
Our conversation with 20 bright girls from secondary school exposed the stark reality of limited choice. It took a while for the students to feel comfortable speaking, but once they started, there was no stopping them. The girls expressed concern for early pregnancies, forced marriages, lack of awareness and access to contraceptives. Four of the women were already married with children, and a fraction of Sudanese girls are lucky to be able to even attend school. (Read the latest UNFPA Report on Sudan)
It became increasingly clear that in Marial Bai and the surrounding region, the lack of education on reproductive and sexual health and women’s rights were compounded by both tradition and the post-conflict situation. According to the UNFPA, the estimated maternal mortality rate is 1,700 deaths per 100,000 live births, the fifth highest in the world, and less than 1 percent of the population uses contraception. The young women we met know this reality and feel that the more they learn, the more they will be able to resist and reverse such injustices.
I brought with me the book by the Hesperian Foundation, Where Women Have No Doctor, and gifted to a group of girls at the boarding school, in an effort to answer many of the questions they had begun to ask. They were thrilled to receive the book, and I found them reading it aided by a truck’s headlight one night!
The energy I felt after talking with these young women was both powerful and confusing. Looking beyond that moment it was clear that for things to shift in favor of women and girls, reproductive health education, including for boys and men, is crucial to helping women realize their right to health in Southern Sudan and around the world.
Kimberly Wolf is part of the Program Team of the Global Fund for Women. Kim Wolf traveled to Sudan as a volunteer with the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. The Global Fund currently does not have the license to do grantmaking in Sudan.
A version of this blog post was originally published on the blog of the Hesperian Foundation.