It was the night before the new school year opening day. She was seven years old then, and it was high time she joined school equally with her peers. Sleep overcame her very late, as she was waiting for her daddy to come home. She had been excitedly absorbed in waves and waves of thoughts about the new experience she was about to explore in the morning. After few hours of restless sleep, she sprang up rushing to her daddy's room where she found that each one of her brothers was already in possession of his school uniform, a school bag, a set of school books and pencils. She anxiously inquired about hers, but her father vehemently cut her short saying: "What?! School is for boys only!". She couldn't get the message right at first. So, she innocently asked her daddy: "Does that mean I will not go to school?". Her father answered flatly and strictly: "Neither you, nor any of your sisters will. School is for boys only"!
She was petrified. She felt dizzy as if somebody had strongly hit her across the cheek. She kept silent for a very long time, only to feel that her tears were pouring down uncontrollably. She had been waiting and counting the years for this day ever since her eyes opened on the exceptionally white uniform of jubilant school girls of her village on their way back from school, carrying their school bags and resonantly chanting songs they had learnt at school. She couldn't understand why her next door peers were allowed to join school, while she and her sisters weren't! It was kind of unresolved mystery to her especially that she still remembered the Khalwa (Quran school) teacher's words to her that she would mark her way as a remarkable student and make huge success when she joined school. But now all those words and dreams seemed to have evaporated and vanished in the simmering heat of her father's vehement rejection.
It appeared that she could only find solace in her uncontrollable tears. In a bid to comfort her, her mom emotionally embraced her and whispered to her passionately that she would one day go to school, only if she acted patiently and wisely. But days went by, and nothing changed. Time and again she used to get up early and go to her daddy inquiring whether the time had come for her to go to school; but every time she received the same rejection answer "No! Never"!.
As time passed on, she developed the habit of expectantly waiting for her half-brother to return from school where she sat beside him and attentively listened to him chanting and reciting his school lessons. She was very keen on memorizing her brother's school songs and absorbing in her little mind every letter and word he repeated, as she was not allowed any access to notebooks or pencils.
Days went by. One day, her father travelled to find work in some other place. That was when her mom took her to school, where she enjoyed one of the sweetest and most memorable experiences in life. But that sweet experience was suddenly disrupted, when her father came back to the village.
Then after some years, her father had to travel abroad looking for work. She was very glad when she learnt that due to her father's traveling abroad, the family would leave their village Karko, 30 kilometer west of Dalanj town, in South Kordufan, to resettle with her mother's family at El-Obayed city, as that would mean she would be able to join school once they settled in the big city. But unfortunately that was not to happen. Life in the city was totally different from the peaceful and settled life in the small village. There were lots of expenses in the city such as rents, food prices, and even water bills to be paid. Therefore her mother was forced to go out to work in order to earn money to cover the living expenses of the family, while she stayed home looking after her younger sisters and brothers.
She submitted to her fate, but she never gave up studying and memorizing whatever her half-brother Jama'a brought back from school. By then she had her own notebooks and pencils.
One day, a next-door girl told her that a nearby church was holding evening classes for girls. Immediately, she went the next morning and took an assessment test, whereupon she was placed in sixth grade. She was twelve years old by then. After having studied for two years at the church missionary school, she had to move to the capital, Khartoum, with her eldest brother. As her father was married to three women, she had twenty brothers and sisters.
At Khartoum, she got registered for the elementary school certificate exams where she successfully passed and was admitted into secondary level. Thus, she began her regular education experience, but she had to register for evening classes because she worked in the morning to support herself and contribute to family living expenses. She was duly and passionately supported by many, particularly Ms. Adeela who encouraged her to join the Rural Development College of Al-Ahfad University, where she excelled, graduated with a merit and won the Distinguished Student Award. Now she is studying for a master degree at the same university in "Development, Peace and Gender" issues.
The above was the remarkable "success story" of Ms. Fatma Azrag, who had conquered and reversed all difficulties and hindrances along the way, and managed to succeed as a learner. In recognition of her outstanding experience, Fatma Azrag was allowed to symbolically occupy, for some hours, the chair of the Ministry of Education's director for Policy, Planning and Research, Dr. Mohammed Salim Mohammed, on the UN International Day of the Girl Child, a day earmarked by the United Nations for promoting awareness of gender inequality against girls worldwide. Ms. Fatma Azrag symbolically assumed the director's chair for hours in coincidence with the assumption of more than 10,000 girls of leading positions worldwide, within a ceremonial context of the international festivity entitled: "Girls' Leadership".
During her assumption of the policy, planning and research director's chair, Ms. Fatma Azrag issued a number of binding and self-executing decisions; the first of which being the immediate implementation of compulsory elementary education for all girls at school-going age in urban areas without segregation. The second decision was the imposition of compulsory education for all girls at school-going age at rural areas, coupled with the launching of awareness and advocacy campaigns stressing and promoting the importance of girls' education. The third binding decision issued by Ms. Azrag, while on director's chair, was in the form of recommendation to the authorities concerned to pass necessary punitive legislations against banning young girls from school, with special recommendation to make girls' adult (parallel) education a government priority, in order to provide learning opportunities for adult girls who had missed regular education process. But the most vital decision issued by Ms. Azrag has been the fourth decision which calls for free elementary education for all children, considering the fact that free elementary education is a child basic human right as per the international charter for human rights.
The above decisions have been endorsed unanimously by all participants at the UN International Girl Child Day festivity as organized by the Sudanese Coalition for Education for All (scefa), and the Ministry of Education in coordination with the Supreme Council for Childhood Welfare and Plan International (Sudan) Organization. The festivity was also witnessed by media associations such as "Journalists for Children", and a number of strategic partners and girl students. The festivity consisted of a number of events including a girl child's solidarity procession, distribution of recognition awards among women leaders of child social work, some quiz competitions, theatrical plays, a child parliament, and media forum.
All participants agreed that preservation of child rights, particularly girl child's rights, are common responsibility of both government and non-government institutions. A girl child should have equal rights and opportunities. It is also recommended that joint efforts should be made to advocate and maintain girl child's rights against segregation and gender inequality in a way that guarantees girl child's rights to complete their education up to the highest levels, and not only have access to elementary education alone. Strategic partners vowed to support, encourage and advocate girl child's cause for education and equality in rural areas as granted and secured by religious teachings and international human rights conventions.
Ms. Mona Farouk, State Minister at the Ministry of Security and Social Welfare which sponsored the event, stressed the government's political will to nurture and support the girl child's cause for equal rights in education and to prevent all types of inequality and segregation against girls, and women in general. Ms. Farouk also highlighted the government's endeavors to advocate and support the girl child's cause in remote and rural areas in compliance with relevant international conventions and agreements. She stressed that many legislations are now in place to guarantee and secure girl child's rights for equality in all educational and other fields. She also promised to review and amend other legislations to make them more positive towards girl child's rights, where required.
Ms. Ensaf Abdalla Ibrahim, Programs Director at the Sudanese Coalition for Education for All (scefa), stated that the event provided a good forum to review past achievements and plan ahead for the future in a way that would engage more community actors. She confirmed her organization's effective role in advocating and promoting educational policies and strategies that aim at curbing school drop-outs and enhancing school accommodation capacities to secure a sustainable and fair educational opportunity for every child as provided for under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 4 concerning the availability of equal educational opportunities and the provision of suitable and sufficient learning methodologies and environments for all children in urban and rural areas alike.
On her part, Dr. Naila El-Tayeb Abu-Shoura, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Advocacy at Plan International (Sudan), stated that effectiveness and efficiency benchmark standards reveal that if given the opportunity, girls are able to conquer difficulties and attain positive change. She added that the festivity event constituted the first step in the advocacy procession for girls' rights and empowerment. Dr. Abu-Shoura also indicated that certain advocacy efforts are being directed towards raising the education budget to become 6% of GDP. She concluded by confirming her organization's firm stand by the girl child's cause and girls' equal right in education and in assuming of leading positions in all fields and sectors.
The Director of Girls Education Department at the Ministry of Education, Ms. Farha Tambal, highlighted the government's efforts in addressing the educational gaps on federal and state levels in order to secure equal education opportunities and to raise average school accommodation standards for girls. She explained her department's role in maintaining governance as well as following up and monitoring of school drop-out rates especially on state levels. Ms. Farha also highlighted a number of challenges facing girls' education in remote and rural areas, such as prevalent customs and poverty. She stated that her department was very much engaged in providing suitable and healthy educational environment at rural areas in terms of providing segregated classes, school meals, healthcare, teaching domestic care skills and promoting girls' awareness of their basic rights.
But in spite of all these official and civic efforts, there are still many hindrances in terms of social customs and traditions that pose a wide gap between the facts on the grounds and the aspired goals as represented in the sustainable development goals and government plans, as indicated by the Chairperson of the "Journalists for Children", Ms. Enaam Mohammed El-Tayeb.
To sum up, Ms. Fatma Azrag has experienced first-hand, at a very early age, the notion of segregation and inequality that a community can nurture and impose among the minds and attitudes of little boys and girls. However, through her strong will and astonishing resilience, Ms. Fatma Azrag managed to conquer hindrances and difficulties and make her dream come true. Yet still, there are now others, out there in remote and rural areas, who are hopingly waiting for us to help them out to the shore of safety.