Akuja de Garang knows what it means to fight for an education. She was 8 years old in 1983, when her family fled from civil war in what was then southern Sudan to the capital, Khartoum. She tried to complete her education there, but with her mother recovering from a stroke and the danger increasing for southerners living in the north, her family was forced to move to Egypt, where they appealed for asylum in the U.K. to join relatives who had previously settled there. While in Egypt, it was her education that allowed De Garang to find office work and avoid falling into the often abusive, sometimes deadly domestic work that many women and girls from southern Sudan were doing to earn a living after escaping the civil war.
When she finally made it to the U.K., she managed to complete her interrupted studies and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies – her plan was to take what she had learned back home to help people.
She returned to southern Sudan in 2004, a year before a peace agreement with Sudan was signed that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. De Garang spent the two years after independence working for UNICEF, OCHA and small consultancy firms to help resolve conflicts in the deeply battle-scarred nation and setting up basic administrative infrastructure in a country with no systems or even roads. Then she turned her attention to helping a new generation of girls achieve their dreams.
As program leader for the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS), an initiative that gives cash transfers to girls and their families to keep them in class, De Garang has been instrumental in setting up a system from scratch that now helps over 180,000 girls, and in convincing parents, communities and the authorities of the value of educating girls.
In December, De Garang’s work got royal recognition when she was included on the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List and became the first recorded South Sudanese person to receive a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). She spoke with Women & Girls about working in a country wracked by conflict and hyperinflation, and the need for more female role models in South Sudan.
Women & Girls: How does it feel to go from refugee scholar in the U.K. to being given an MBE?
Akuja de Garang: It’s really about the commitment to South Sudan in general. Being a refugee wasn’t something that defined me as such. I was definitely grateful for the opportunity to be able to leave and not experience the war. I was among the lucky ones who was able to get to the U.K., and very few people were able to get there. It wasn’t a smooth movement. It wasn’t even planned.
Women & Girls: What does the MBE mean for you and for South Sudanese women and girls?
De Garang: It’s still sinking in to be honest. I did not expect it at all. Of course, in terms of raising the profile of the program, of the work we’re doing, I think that’s absolutely amazing. Just having something that’s positive that’s happening that people recognize. That, for me, is the immediate thing I’m thinking about. How do we use this as an opportunity to raise issues around education in general and particularly for girls?
Women & Girls: Is it sometimes difficult to work in a country so beset by problems?
De Garang: Yes. With the girls’ education program, for example, it’s constantly dealing with something new every day. It’s great that the U.K. [which provides aid to fund the GESS program] made this commitment and stuck to it, and we’re doing what we can. But we all know it’s really not enough to take the country where it wants to be. It’s just a start, and the difficulty is that what is happening with the economy in the country right now is not helping.
Women & Girls: In such a young, war-torn and patriarchal country, do South Sudanese girls have many female role models?
De Garang: We aren’t out there enough. The females in the public eye are the female ministers, but in general they’re not really reaching the girls at the grassroots that need to be spoken to.
There’s still a huge gap. For a lot of the South Sudanese women, unfortunately their stories – where they started from, their journey that girls can relate to – I think that’s what is missing. Maybe we need to ask these women, including myself, to really tell their story from the beginning, where they started and where they got to. I think that’s where the connection can be made and can be a starting point.
Women & Girls: What do you hope will come from you winning this award?
De Garang: For the girls’ education program, I’m hoping this will lead to a bit more in terms of funding or an extension for what has been done, because I feel that what has just been started is really a drop in the ocean. For the girls, I’m hoping this will be a story that they will aspire to. If my story can in any way inspire any of the girls, that would be great. For me, it’s just putting the country in a different light. I think that this would be a different story and one that hasn’t been told before – of a South Sudanese winning an MBE.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.