DALLAS, Texas — The pandemic has harshly affected many countries throughout the world. However, some countries started out in worse shape than others; South Sudan is one of them. With a GDP of $1 billion in 2019, the country is not as stable or prosperous compared to others. This has been exacerbated by the decades of conflict before the establishment of a proper government in 2011. This conflict created problems of displacement and refugees. While the COVID-19 numbers have not been big, fewer than 12,500 cases, the issues that have occurred as a result of these cases are concerning. One of the more tragic results of the pandemic is the impact it has on South Sudan youth.
Previous Conflict and COVID-19
A seven-year civil war between 2013 and 2020 resulted in the deaths of 400,000 people and a massive refugee crisis. Access to food has also been scarce. In 2018, six million were victims of food insecurity. With this in mind, the pandemic has further impacted the fragile country. As a result of COVID-19, businesses that needed consistent revenue to stay afloat and have consistently grown at a slow pace are racked by lockdowns and a limited customer base. Health services that have consistently served issues of reproductive health and HIV/AIDS patients have decreased.
Considering the consistent conflict and poor economy, South Sudan has seen continuous issues among its younger populous. Flooding and waterborne diseases have also been prevalent in wiping out existing crops and the lack of sustainability means that these sorts of situations have harsher impacts. Long distances to nearby healthcare and poor roads are also common elements that cause problems for the South Sudan youth.
Hunger in South Sudan
COVID-19’s economic disruption has resulted in even less to go around. As a result, most households are unable to even retain the basic necessities for nutrition. Jobs and businesses have gone under, which cut the only way for most families to provide for their children. Additionally, food prices spiked following the panic and low supplies were rampant after markets tightened. The slowing of the economy also cut into smaller enterprises in the informal sector that provide vital food supply chains. The impact has been noticeable in local communities experiencing limited resources.
All of this has harshly affected South Sudan youth in terms of hunger. In 2014, UNICEF found that nearly one million children under the age of five needed treatment for the issues of acute malnutrition. While groups like UNICEF have responded with assistance, helping 33,000 children in 2017, the pandemic threw a wrench into any sort of assistance or improvements. This year, UNICEF stated that 313,000 children five years and younger will need treatment for malnutrition.
Unfortunately, ways to address starvation are also depleting. The 15 health facilities in the urban area of Juba have issues housing the 14,000 children sick with severe to moderate acute malnutrition. Considering that proper healthcare and existing areas that supply available food are often far away from many communities, the pandemic has further constricted access. It has heavily affected even more general needs like delivery for community-based health and nutrition.
Education in South Sudan
Alongside nourishment, proper education is an essential part of preparing children of any country to build a future. South Sudan, has the highest proportion of out-of-school children globally at 72%. With recent peace, there have been some attempts to ensure a stable and available education system. Groups like Global Partnership Education have pledged to assist the budding nation in promoting educative and informational campaigns.
Previously, at least 60% of schools in the country had intense damage or were out of service due to the conflict. Once COVID-19 hit, around 3.1 million children were unable to receive an education. Those with disabilities are greatly affected, as many are unable to access the remote learning programs. Additionally, around 35,000 teachers are also likely to lose their jobs. This will affect current efforts to educate as well as post-pandemic attempts to get schools back to normal.
Education is one of the more effective ways to correct societal issues. The number of early marriages and pregnancies decreases when education is strong in society. Unfortunately, the focus on education to help the country recover prior to the pandemic required outside help. Now, efforts have been pushed back due to the lockdown. Most children who grow up in South Sudan are in positions of poverty and violence and have little hope for the future.
Child Soldiers in South Sudan
One of the more tragic elements that have plagued the South Sudan youth is the appearance of child soldiers. The civil war that has defined the situation in the country over the past decade or so has also resulted in an increase in the use of children in war. In 2018, 19,000 children were part of the countries armed forces. Abductions occur with soldiers forcing children into their units. Boys become workers or soldiers while girls become wives with some being forced to have children. Even with governmental efforts and foreign aid, the problem continues to persist.
In terms of getting children out of these situations, the government and other organizations have made strides. However, the rise of COVID-19 has impacted the situation. The pandemic has also stopped negotiations for child release. To ensure that a child gets back to a normal life, complex negotiations occur with the government and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Protection systems and psychosocial counseling alongside healthcare are all needed to ensure that the transition is complete. With COVID-19, however, the NGOs have been heavily restricted. From January and June 2020, “only 97 boys and two girls” were released.
Unfortunately, those released were unable to travel back home or even move around in their communities, access education or vocational skills for their own benefit or communicate with caseworkers remotely. The economic downturn resulting from lockdowns has hindered attempts to reintegrate child soldiers due to a lack of a proper system to ensure stable reentry. Even the three-month reintegration package is part of a system that is hampered by a lack of organization and resources.
Not only that, but the disparity creates a risk of youth going back to the armed forces they left. Many liberated children have difficulty in readjusting to normal life. Fear of stigmatization and emotional stress is also common. If a child believes that the situation they were in beforehand provided to them more, it would seem easier just to return. So, with resources dwindling in the communities where child soldiers are sent back to, the possibility of them leaving increases.
Hope for the Future
In spite of all these problems, there are many silver linings. Schools have been reopening with the lowered COVID-19 restrictions. While not all children are ready or able to return to classes, the opening of the schools shows that stability is slowly returning. UNICEF has even supplied a $7 million grant that prioritized education towards disease prevention and a roadmap to help reopen schools.
Alongside this, Girls Education South Sudan (GESS) has focused on a more direct program within schools to address similar issues. The goal of its program is to properly educate young girls and give them knowledge and assistance to combat the issue of youth marriages and pregnancies. The program uses discussions of firsthand experiences. GESS has even bypassed the issues of the pandemic by donating solar-powered radios to ensure that their messages get through.
There are also groups like Plan International and UNICEF, which have focused on bringing awareness to the issues of hunger in the country and have even aided directly. Alongside this, the African Development Bank has focused on placing a package called Feed Africa Response to COVID-19 (FAREC) to assist government and farmers across Africa to build stability and sufficiency in food production. Agriculture loans allow for stable prices and the free movement of food. The ADB has pushed $10 billion to further assist in financial challenges and to provide for health items for most needs throughout Africa and this has benefited South Sudan in supplying necessary goods.
This assistance helps many families survive both the pandemic and conflicts that have disrupted any chance at properly reestablishing themselves. In short, while COVID-19 has immensely impacted South Sudan youth in many facets, the country is slowly looking to recover.
– John Dunkerley