“The life now is very difficult to us, I did up to primary school…I want to go to secondary school, but it is hard to go to secondary school because of the fighting…I want to be a doctor. I want to help my people.”
This is 19-year old Michael.* Michael fled his village in Leer County in late April this year when it was attacked by government soldiers and their allied forces. We met Michael on a small island in the swamplands near Nyal in Panyijar County. Panyijar is a remote area in the southern part of the Unity State region and is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition. Many people have fled there during successive waves of fighting due to its relative safety.
Despite being 19, Michael has only completed primary school. Because of the conflict that started in December 2013 he has not been able to go to secondary school. Left with few options, Michael is now a member of the locally organized armed group, or community defense forces, known as the Gojam, or sometimes the ‘White Army.’ But, he sees another future for himself. He wants to be a doctor so he can help his people.
Michael is among many children and youth whose lives have been devastated by the ongoing conflict. UNICEF estimates that three quarters of all children born after South Sudan’s independence in 2011 have only known war and that at least half of all children have been affected by the ongoing conflict. Over the past nearly five years, thousands of children have also been forcibly recruited into armed groups and while hundreds of child soldiers have been released this year alone, according to UNICEF, 19,000 children are still being held.
More than 2,300 children have also been killed, or maimed, with many children deliberately targeted by both government and armed opposition groups. On our most recent visit to South Sudan in July, civilians who escaped the offensive on Leer and Meyendit Counties in Unity State between April and May told us about some of the grave violations against children that occurred.
Twenty year-old Rebecca* was in Leer when her village was attacked in late April. Her father was shot and killed and her younger sister was abducted and held at a military base in Leer.
“…When they found small boys they would tell them to go into the house and they would burn the house…the other small boys… they would throw them against the tree…There were seven men who collected children and put them into a tukle [hut] and they set the tukle on fire. I could hear the screaming. They were four boys. One boy tried to come out and the soldiers closed the door on him. There were also five boys who they hit against the tree, swinging them. They were like 2-3 years old….”
Not surprisingly, the mental health impact of the conflict on children and youth has been severe. According to UNICEF, 900,000 children are said to be in need of psycho-social support and 26% of adolescent girls in South Sudan are reported to have considered ending their own lives in the last year.
Another ‘lost generation’
The situation as a whole is producing another ‘lost generation.’ We found Joseph*, 11 and David*, 9 doing their English homework in Nyal. Brothers, they both started school for the first time in 2017. But, being able to go to school in South Sudan is a right that the majority of children do not get to enjoy. Schools have been razed in successive waves of fighting, or occupied by armed groups and more than 70% of school age children – the highest proportion in the world – are not able to access education.
This is especially true for youth and adolescents. As a result of years of underdevelopment and conflict, there are few secondary schools in South Sudan. Consequently, for adolescents and youth like Michael who have completed primary school, there are not many opportunities to finish their studies, which can be a driving force behind them joining armed groups. As Samuel,* 18, another member of the local community defense force told us, “…for me, I want to go to school, but there is no way out…” Male youth like Michael and Samuel also face immense pressures to participate in fighting and are valued by society primarily for the role they play in community defense, especially in times of crisis.
The situation for South Sudan’s girls and young women is even worse. In addition to being subject to brutal acts of conflict-related sexual violence, girls and young women face other gender inequalities on account of socio-cultural norms and practices that make them more likely to experience food insecurity and lower levels of schooling. Adolescent girls especially are often forced to take on the responsibility of providing for their families in times of conflict, making it hard for them to access education. Indeed, access to education for girls is often hindered by discriminatory norms and practices that are only worsened in times of war. With the deepening economic crisis in the country, families are also increasingly reliant on the income generated from practices, such as “bride-wealth” – resources exchanged between two families for a girl, or woman’s hand in marriage – leading to additional pressures for families to marry off their daughters at younger and younger ages.
We met Nyboth,* a 19-year old young woman on an island an hour and a half outside of Nyal by boat. She was forced to marry when she was 14 and had her first child in her first year of marriage. She dropped out of school after the first grade when she was taken to the cattle camp – remote areas where pastoralist communities keep their cattle.
“I tried to go to school. I dropped out and I never went back. I only finished class 1 because my father took me to the cattle camp…I wish I could go back to school. I want to be a teacher….”
South Sudan’s children and youth deserve better
The children and youth of South Sudan not only deserve a chance for a better future, they are the future. The South Sudan government should immediately end all human rights violations against children and youth and put in place measures to protect them from grave abuses. Parties to the conflict should also abstain from acts that disrupt schooling and respect their obligation to fulfil children’s right to education.
* Names changed to protect identity