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Girls From Sudan's War Now Fight to Learn

Mary Abuk, 18, soft-spoken and wearing a torn pink dress, said she wanted to help "my younger sisters all across Sudan."

Abuk and the others believe the way to change the bias against educating girls is by acting as role models. They talk to reluctant parents, telling them educated girls can take better financial care of them one day.

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)

"Educated girls can do math at the market and can teach their children hygiene," Abuk said. "They can also check their children's workbooks. It's better when a mother knows how to read."

But Jok Awil Jok, a local education administrator, said many parents would rather pay for their sons to be sent to school. They also may resist sending their daughters to distant schools, partly out of fear for their safety. To solve this problem, UNICEF has helped start all-girl schools close to villages, though they have few resources. In one such school, 28 girls sit on plastic bags and share 18 textbooks among them.

But lately, Jok said he has noticed that families who were wartime refugees in Kenyan camps, where girls' schools were set up by aid agencies, have been returning and telling other parents that educating girls is a good idea.

"In a strange way, the war opened some people up to new experiences," Jok said. "I think that influence will change things in Sudan.

Tradition Intrudes

One recent Friday, Mary's brother Eziekel began pestering her again. The weekend had arrived, and he was broke. He said she should leave school, and while they were in the market, he dragged over a pimple-faced man and said she should marry him.

Mary rolled her eyes and started to shove her brother. Then she fell silent with her arms crossed, thinking about something she had heard at school: that educated girls bring a better dowry.

"How many cows am I worth now?" she asked her brother.

"Maybe 70," he murmured, getting her point.

"Please, if I stay in school like the girls from Kenya and wait, I will be worth more soon," she promised, reminding him that a friend recently fetched a price of 200 cows because she had earned a secondary-school diploma in Uganda.

Eziekel nodded, and Mary trudged back to school, where the science lesson on hygiene was about to start. It was her favorite subject. But when she arrived, the teacher asked her to make lunch. According to Dinka culture, when an older man asks a woman to fix a meal, she must obey.

Mary sighed but complied without protest.

"One quarrel is enough for this day," she remarked as she padded off to fetch water from the village well, a deep borehole. Dozens of older women were gathered around it, most with babies on their backs or toddlers tugging on their dresses.

Deep in thought, Mary suddenly said that perhaps becoming a doctor would be "too much for a woman" with so many other chores to do. Maybe becoming a "girl-teacher" would be a better idea, she said with a shrug.

Then she returned to the school and cooked porridge over a charcoal fire. The boys came bounding toward her, fresh from their science lesson. As she served their lunch, she asked what they had learned in class.

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