134 aid workers have given their lives to save South Sudan children, 4 in last 2 weeks alone

Aid workers at Save the Children, an international non-governmental organization, risk their lives everyday to implement their child-centered mission in South Sudan, but that has been difficult with so many things working against them. Most recently, two of their aid workers were shot and one was killed.

Their challenges are not limited to violence alone, the statistics are fighting against them as well. Most South Sudanese children do live to five-years-old, and the ones that do are guaranteed to experience extreme violence, trauma, deprivation, and lack of access to essential services.

Today News Africa Correspondent Kristi Pelzel spoke with Save the Children’s South Sudan Director, Rama Hansraj, who described the challenges they face as being aggravated by continued armed violence, and sub-national level conflict (inter-communal), leading to ambushes by criminal groups and looting of their humanitarian materials. 

The core source of the challenges seems to be due to an upsurge in anti-foreigner sentiments towards non-local and international staff. In the last two weeks, four humanitarian workers were killed. In 2020, around 14 humanitarian workers were killed, and 134 since conflicts erupted in 2013. As a result of ongoing violent, destructive, and deadly conflicts, 195 reported cases of forced staff relocation and suspension of services have occurred in the last year. 

To put the level of need into perspective, of the total approximate population of 10.9 million, newborns to 14-year-old children make up 42%, and that’s around 4.5 million. Hansraj said that 7.5 million people need immediate multi-sectoral humanitarian assistance, including 4.1 million children. This means almost the entire population of children are affected, and she considers these statistics an improvement since the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) in 2020. 

The signing and formation of a transitional government was expected to bring peace and security, return internally displaced persons to their homes, and end political disputes for economic growth and national health and safety. David Shearer, United Nations Head of Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), praised President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar for the establishment of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) in South Sudan in February of 2020. One year later, the situation remains fragile, with nearly 4-million people displaced, 1.5 million internally, and 2.2 million living as refugees in neighboring countries. 

The cumulative effects of years of prolonged conflict, chronic vulnerabilities, weak essential services, concurrent intercommunal violence, armed conflict, cyclical drought, and perennial flooding, and now humanitarian murders might make this one of the world’s most challenging assignments. 

In South Sudan, up to 2.4 million children are not attending school, and that’s the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world. Years of conflict, displacement, and economic collapse continue to deprive children of education, harming the country’s future, compounded with access to affordable and reliable internet and mobile connectivity. In collaboration with the General Education and Instruction Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, and other ministries, Save the Children wants to get children back into school and adequately train teachers. 

Save The Children’s South Sudan Director, Rama Hansraj, explained that their main programmatic areas are; Child Protection, Education, Health, Nutrition, Food Security, Livelihood, and Child Rights Governance. These areas focus on South Sudan’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). 

Despite the seemingly impossible challenges, they’ve stayed and continued to make an effort to collaborate with the government. “Save the Children has a very cordial working relationship with the South Sudanese government, specifically the line ministries such as Ministry of General Education and Instruction with whom we coordinate and collaborate on all education programs, said Hansraj.

Most government offices have former Save the Children staff members, or they have been beneficiaries of Save the Children’s programs in the past, so they understand the issues. The presence of arms in many South Sudanese hands encourages things like cattle rustling, revenge killings, and violence against foreigners. 

A lot of effort has gone into establishing the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU), and Save the Children can see the shifts in the country’s situations. Still, there is a lot to be done. There are long-standing chronic issues where quick fixes won’t work. When you have so many ethnic groups with diverse experiences and beliefs, it’s not easy to bring them together in a way that supports a broader country-level goal. 

From the perspective of a child, and from what the future will hold, it could be devastating. Most children don’t make it to age five because of preventable diseases, including Pneumonia. If they survive this, they’ll face hunger and acute malnutrition that hampers their full cognitive growth, constant exposure to diseases due to lack of proper water and sanitation facilities, and minimal access to education due to lack of infrastructure or trained teachers. 

In many cultural practices, boys are expected to learn in the livestock and agricultural fields, while girls tend to household chores. These circumstances lead to early and forced marriages, children being forced or willingly joining armed groups. Children face the threat of regular abductions, bartered during cattle rustling, separated from the families, and lose their childhood. 

One effort by Save the Children is to leverage their expertise in child rights to influence stakeholder accountability (including that of United Nations, embassies and diplomats, and donors) in the country. “Children’s participation is key to decision making, especially linked to those that impact children directly,” said Hansraj. The non-governmental agency thinks leadership should let South Sudan children have a voice and not just listen to what they are saying but hear what they are saying, and by hearing them, it means they act. There are signs of action, but it’s still not enough.

The Child Act 2008 provides a comprehensive legal framework for realizing child rights in line with international law and sets out the rights and duties of all parties responsible for children’s care. The Sudanese government has developed a new Labor and Employment Bill to protect working children, but South Sudan is yet to ratify the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC, 2020). The South Sudan Legislative Assembly has passed the ACRWC, but certain formalities are stalling full ratification. 

Despite the progress towards building a robust legislative and policy framework for addressing child protection concerns, violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect continue to be a daily reality in the lives of most South Sudanese children. 

Much of the insecurity and crisis in South Sudan is directly or indirectly linked with political rivalries, apart from the ethnicity and land-rights related issues. “A strong coordination and understanding is needed among the country leaders for the lasting peace which humanitarian agencies can complement to bring positive and sustainable changes to the lives of deprived communities and peoples with acute needs,” suggested Hansraj. 

Save the Children, a 100-year-old non-governmental organization based in London, England, has ten field offices in seven South Sudan states. Headquartered in Juba, Central Equatoria State, they have field offices in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile, Lakes, Jonglei, Eastern Equatoria, Warrap, and Abyei Administrative Area. They’re committed to South Sudan’s mission, even in the face of the recent humanitarian murders, but urgently need more support and more security from the government and the international community-at-large. 

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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