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South Sudan: UNICEF warns of ‘desperation and hopelessness’ for children 10 years after independence

A child carries empty jerry cans to fill with water from a nearby tap providing untreated water from the Nile river in Juba, South Sudan.
© UNICEF/Phil Hatcher-Moore
A child carries empty jerry cans to fill with water from a nearby tap providing untreated water from the Nile river in Juba, South Sudan.

South Sudan: UNICEF warns of ‘desperation and hopelessness’ for children 10 years after independence

Humanitarian Aid

Ten years after South Sudan achieved independence, more children there are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance than ever before, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, said on Tuesday. 

In a report published ahead of the country’s milestone anniversary on 9 July, UNICEF found a record 4.5 million youngsters, or two-thirds of children in South Sudan, are in desperate need of support. 

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The child mortality rate is among the highest in the world, the agency added, with one in 10 children not expected to reach their fifth birthday. Malnutrition and limited access to education are among other top concerns. 

'Desperation and hopelessness'

“The hope and optimism that children and families in South Sudan felt at the birth of their country in 2011 have slowly turned to desperation and hopelessness,” said Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director.  

“The childhood of many 10-year-old children in South Sudan today has been beset by violence, crises and rights abuses,” she added. 

UNICEF recalled that during this period, the world’s youngest country has experienced bouts of violence and conflict, but also recurring floods, droughts and other extreme weather events fuelled by climate change.  A deepening economic crisis has added to the suffering. 

These factors have led to extremely high food insecurity and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, while a recent peace agreement, which has only been partially implemented, has failed to improve challenges facing children and young people. 

Child rights not respected 

“Child rights are not respected here in South Sudan: the right to go to school, the right to eat, the right to protection, the right to security…so many rights that are not being given to us,” Christine Saida, a UNICEF Child Reporter in South Sudan, told journalists during the bi-weekly press briefing at the UN Office in Geneva. 

“The children in South Sudan are facing many crises, including child abduction, cattle raiding, communal conflict, displacement, violence in the country, gender-based violence. Flooding and violence are making things worse for children, contributing to high levels of malnutrition.” 

Malnutrition a top concern 

UNICEF said overall, some 8.3 million people in South Sudan require humanitarian support, which is more than the numbers seen during the civil war from 2013-2018. 

The high level of food insecurity in the country is a particular concern, and the agency expects some 1.4 million children will suffer acute malnutrition this year: the highest number since 2013.  More than 300,000 youngsters are expected to suffer from the worst form of malnutrition and could be at risk of dying if they do not get treatment. 

Meanwhile, South Sudan also has the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world.   

Limited access to education, as well as high drop-out rates, mean some 2.8 million children are not in school, representing more than 70 per cent of school-age children.  School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also pushed an additional two million children out of the classroom. 

Funding shortfall threat 

Amid continued insecurity, UNICEF and partners work to screen and treat children for acute malnutrition, with hopes of reaching some 1.4 million this year.  The agency is also prioritizing issues such as improved access to clean water, improved sanitation and hygiene, as well as access to basic health care and education. 

Although UNICEF is seeking $180 million to assist the most vulnerable children in South Sudan this year, the appeal is only one-third funded, and the wider Humanitarian Response Plan for the country is facing a similar situation. 

The agency added that donors have already made cuts in their budgets for South Sudan, or given notice of their intention to do so, which means the crisis will only worsen as the lean season begins, bringing with it increased risk of flooding. 

Andrea Suley, UNICEF South Sudan’s acting Representative, warned of the consequences. 

“If we, as a humanitarian community, do not receive sufficient funding, the reality for children and families is that no help will be coming,” she said.  

“Humanitarian organizations are responsible for almost all service delivery in South Sudan. Without an end to the pervasive violence and insecurity threatening families and hampering humanitarian access, and without adequate funding, health and nutrition centres will be closed, wells will not be fixed and the sound of the generators keeping the vaccine fridges cool will soon fade away.”