Drought and violence taking toll on South Sudan’s children

Children displaced by recent fighting stand outside a tented school run by UNICEF, in the town of Mingkaman, South Sudan where humanitarian assistance is being provided. (Credit: UNICEF/Holt)

The number of children fleeing violence and famine in South Sudan has passed 1 million, two U.N. agencies announced today.

Children make up more than 60 percent of the 1.8 million refugees from the world’s youngest country. Families face physical harm, psychological trauma, hunger – leaving an entire generation at risk of falling so far behind that they will never be able to catch up.

“The horrifying fact that nearly one in five children in South Sudan has been forced to flee their home illustrates how devastating this conflict has been for the country’s most vulnerable,” Leila Pakkala, UNICEF’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said in a statement. “Add this to the more than one million children who are also displaced within South Sudan, and the future of a generation is truly on the brink.”

It comes at the time when rains are returning to the region. While it may be the end of the drought, the higher risk of flooding puts the millions of people displaced from their homes at risk of water-borne illness. Children are particularly vulnerable to dying from diarrhea caused by cholera or other bacteria in their drinking water.

The warning from UNICEF and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) aims to bring attention to the situation before it gets worse. Roughly 50 percent of the $181 million UNICEF needs to support South Sudan and its refugees for 2017 is available. UNHCR, on the other hand, needs four times more money than UNICEF, but it’s budget only 11 percent funded.

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“No refugee crisis today worries me more than South Sudan,” Valentin Tapsoba, UNHCR’s Africa bureau director, said in a statement. “That refugee children are becoming the defining face of this emergency is incredibly troubling. We, all in the humanitarian community, need most urgent, committed and sustainable support to be able to save their lives.”

Last week, the UNICEF published a report on the 25 million children out of school in conflict zones. South Sudan stood ahead of the rest of the world with the highest rate of out-of-school children at nearly 72 percent. It is particularly bad for girls, the survey found.

Amid the conflict, many families are forced to flee, and others have so few resources that their children must work. Some families face tough choices over which children can go to school, and it’s often the girls who must stay home, according to Plan International.

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“In times of food crisis, families often see the value in sending their boys to school, but many prefer to keep their girls at home to do housework or help them to find food. Shockingly, it’s also common for them to be sold into early marriages in exchange for cattle,” Plan International Chief Executive Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen said in a response to the UNCIEF report.

“Many families are eating barely one meal per day so they see keeping their girls at home or selling them into marriage as a useful way to save money or gain life-saving resources, especially as women and children in the villages have been left to fend for themselves,” Albrectsen said.

A hunger crisis that affects more than 40 percent of people in South Sudan adds a new lifelong risk for children. Lack of nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life can cause stunting, which can lead to higher risk of weak immune systems, impaired brain development, lower IQs and the development of diseases like cancer later in life.

Famine was already declared in parts of the country, meaning that children are dying from malnutrition and it is expected to get worse in the coming months.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.