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Girls From Sudan's War Now Fight to Learn

Deng said she should skip school and hang out with him. He punched her in the arm. She punched back. Another boy stepped on her foot, and she shoved him to the ground. He was smaller, and he started crying.

Later in the day, Mary confided that she had been trying to attract a certain boy by painting her nails purple. But the polish keeps peeling off, her clothes are always dirty and her headband never seems to be in the right place.

Mary Achok Marial, left, is one of two female students at a school for former child fighters in Sudan's civil war. She dreams of one day becoming a doctor or teaching other girls. (Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
U.N. Report on Sudan Draws Mixed Reaction (The Washington Post, Feb 2, 2005)
U.N. Panel Finds No Genocide in Darfur but Urges Tribunals (The Washington Post, Feb 1, 2005)
At Least 18 Dead After Sudanese Forces Quell Protest (The Washington Post, Jan 31, 2005)
U.S. Urges War Crimes Tribunal for Darfur Atrocities (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2005)
Annan Urges Action on Darfur at U.N. Commemoration of Holocaust (The Washington Post, Jan 25, 2005)

"I have never grown up with a mother," she said, shrugging. "Maybe that's why I am so tough."

Mary's main concern, though, is that her brother will marry her off. She is a member of the Dinka tribe, and according to its traditions, a bride in peacetime brings a dowry of at least 50 cows, which the groom's family gives to her closest living male relative.

Mary, who is learning to read and write, said she would like to be a doctor.

Eziekel, who was listening to the conversation, said that idea sounded "very strange."

"You just want the cows," she retorted. "You are always wanting my dowry now to sponsor your life."

"The war is over now," he responded. Mary, he said, "should be a caretaker and soon a mother."

In Sudan, where the average age at death is 42, a girl who remains unmarried after 16 is considered a "lonely one," or old maid.

Parents also worry that sending girls to school will take them away from domestic chores, such as helping with washing, cleaning and fetching water. After the first few years of school, dropout rates for girls are staggering. At Rumbek Girls Primary School, there are 30 girls in each of the lower grades, but only six in the top class.

Since Mary is without parents, she can make more decisions for herself, but she said Eziekel has been pestering her to marry ever since she turned 14.

As she trudged off to market to buy sugar and flour, he called her over to be inspected by a group of friends. "Girl-child, come here," he called. "She is strong," one friend remarked with a laugh. "I say, 100 cows."

Mary gave him a fierce look as she strutted off.

Female Role Models

Inside a dark classroom, 100 teachers squeezed together in front of blackboard. They were attending a UNICEF training session in the nearby town of Marial Bay. Only seven were women.

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