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A Difficult Promise to Keep in Southern Sudan

In one of the poorest, most remote areas of Southern Sudan, schoolgirls attend class under the shade of a sprawling tree. A group of women from Boston who years ago promised to build a real school for the girls recently returned to the village of Akon.

The women find that in Sudan, which is attempting to recover from the devastation of a 21-year civil war, the promise is a difficult one to keep. A peace agreement last January ended the war between the Muslim-dominated north and largely Christian and indigenous southerners. But the region remains on a knife's edge.

Of the almost 1.5 million students in school in Southern Sudan, only about 83,000, or 12 percent, are girls. And while the numbers are increasing in the early grades, economic hardship and forced marriages are leading to dramatic decreases before secondary school.

Gloria White-Hammond, the leader of the delegation, is an African Methodist Episcopal minister and a pediatrician. She tells the villagers the women came to build a school, but this is really an assessment trip.

Most of the American women, who call their group My Sister's Keeper, are no strangers to this part of Sudan. They came first in 2001, as part of a delegation buying back women and children captured by northerners and allegedly taken as slaves.

Melinda Weekes, a young lawyer attending Harvard Divinity School, traveled with White-Hammond on the earlier mission. It was that visit that spawned the idea for My Sister's Keeper. Once the Sudanese women had been returned to their homes, they needed help rebuilding and establishing communities again, Weekes says.

Achol Cyier Rehan, the first-ever female commissioner of the local county, is convinced education will liberate women from such problems, which is why she has put her confidence in My Sister's Keeper. "The way that we can actually promote women... is through education," she says.

One of the visiting women is Sarah Rial, a Sudanese exile returning to her home for the first time in 20 years. She had opposed the Khartoum government as a student and fled in fear of her life.

Upon her arrival, she was elated to be back in her home country. But after learning about the competing and multiple demands for assistance, Rial says she's overwhelmed. "The people are talking about things that are not available -- no schools, no hospitals, medical supplies," she says. "There are so many things that need to be done."

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently left her post as CNN's Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent, which she had held since 1999, to pursue independent projects. Before joining CNN, she worked from Johannesburg as the chief correspondent in Africa for NPR from 1997 to 1999.