Meet the girls of South Sudan fighting for an education

Photojournalist Sara Hylton documents the resilience of young women in South Sudan, for whom education is not a guarantee. It's both empowering and humbling.

17 January 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read

Sara Hylton has always been a dreamer. As a young girl in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan in Canada, it was her greatest trait. It became a way for her to believe that there was something more for her out there in the world, and in time, the award-winning photographer would certainly realise this. As a graduate from the International Centre of Photography and Kings College London’s master’s degree in International Conflict Studies, the south Asia-based photographer turned her attention to issues of gender, vulnerable communities and indigenous peoples, shedding light on the subjects through powerful medium format photography.

Having worked for the likes of National Geographic, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times Magazine just to name a few, the travelling photographer has also exhibited internationally in both solo and group shows, positioning poignant issues in the public domain. “The tool of photography came to me later in my 20s, but I’ve been a witness my whole life. It’s just who I am,” she tells It’s Nice That. “The camera comes and goes and will always be my tool, but the crux of my work is really about being able to see someone as they are, hold space, and listen.”

Growing up with parents in academia and involved in advocacy, since she was a child, Sara has been exposed to a multitude of cultural experiences and travel. It’s gone on to inform not only her career but also her individual identity, and coupled with her degree in gender and conflict, Sara “always looks through that lens” to tell stories sensitively. She’s won numerous grants and awards for her journalistic endeavours, most recently for her work on missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada in 2018. Now, however, Sara documents displaced girls in South Sudan seeking an education in a volatile country.


Sara Hylton: Girls Education in South Sudan

Having lived on the border of South Sudan and Uganda before she became a photographer, Sara became aware of the conflicts faced by young girls up and down the country. The United Nations estimated that 2.3 million people have been displaced since December 2013, 47 per cent of which are school-aged children. For many girls, their education has and continues to be precariously disrupted. Violence, hunger, early marriage and sexual exploitation pose as lingering threats and stand in the way of the young girls’ development. “This is not just an issue in South Sudan, but around the world,” continues Sara. “I’ve been incredibly privileged in my life, my parents always supported me, I had clean water and a house over my head and the ability to educate myself in order to progress as an independent woman. Part of my privilege is about my understanding that if I was born at a different time or place, I could be in the same circumstance as the girls I met in South Sudan. They hold the same, if not more, talent than me.”

She recalls one of her favourite portraits from the series; of a 14-year-old girl called Jessica who was in the care of an orphanage. “I remember watching her and just feeling trauma,” says Sara. “She had a T-shirt that said ‘fierce’, and that word is exactly what she was.” Another memorable portrait that Sara loved working on depicts Viola, Susan and Diana, mechanical engineering students in a male-dominated classroom. “They were very proud of fighting stereotypes and wanted to work hard for their country,” adds Sara on the empowering portrait of the trio.

Despite whatever struggles these girls have experienced, for Sara, the predominant observation was of the “incredible resilience and resourcefulness that young girls contain.” She learnt an “immense grace and fortitude” from them, something that she’ll carry with her for the rest of her life. “They study through hunger and survive attacks on their families and villages, they argue against child marriage and they care of one another,” Sara concludes finally. “The girls are strong and courageous and so much more than their circumstances. Of course, I always knew this, but being able to work on this series was so powerful and humbling.”

GallerySara Hylton: Girls Education in South Sudan

Hero Header

Sara Hylton: Girls Education in South Sudan

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.