Famine and Sexual Violence Sweep South Sudan as Internal Conflict Continues

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By Re

Women sleep on the wet ground, their bodies shielded by nothing but plastic sheets. When it rains, the dirt turns to mud and the entire camp fills with knee-deep, feces-contaminated water because the latrines have been washed away. That’s why some sleep standing carrying the weight of their children in their arms, for there is no place to lie down. They and their children have neither adequate shelter nor nutrition; they’re famished. Healthcare facilities are few and far between, along flooded roads where danger looms—184 centers have been destroyed or looted, and health staff are among those displaced. Mothers risk rape and their own lives, on quests to find humanitarian aid, walking miles with small children in baskets on their heads. UNICEF estimates that 840,000 children under just five years old will suffer from malnutrition between September and December this year, and 50,000 might die. Their mothers can do little about it. They are nine times more likely to die as they suffer from acute respiratory infections, and are vulnerable in malaria- and cholera-infested surroundings. For some mothers, their child’s death is just a waiting game.

This is a camp in Bentiu, South Sudan.

Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, clash with those backing rebel leader, Riek Machar, a member of the rival Nuer; tension has claimed more than 10,000 lives in South Sudan. Days after Kiir and Machar agreed to an “unconditional, complete and immediate end to all hostilities” within 15 days on Friday, violence has broken out in three states: Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity.

This civil war has already displaced about 1.9 million South Sudanese people since December 2013—of whom 78 percent (or 1.4 million) remain in the streets or in camps, and another 490,000 have fled the country. Largely exacerbated by the escalation of internal conflict, the threat of a full-blown famine sweeps the nation and sexual violence is perpetuated.

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It is unclear which is worse, the brink of famine or sexual violence. What is clear: the crisis of South Sudan is man-made, and thus the solution lies within their own hands—the same hands that created it.

Because of internal conflict, farmers missed the planting season and thus there has been limited food production. Cattle raids—a tool of war—like the ones in Western Equatoria and Gumuruk, Jonglei on October 27th kill both people and the food market. And nonetheless, the prolonged rainy season has worsened the war-stricken roads, making the little food difficult, if not impossible, to reach.

But even as the rainy season now ceases, diplomats and local observers are fearful of a resumption of hostilities and upsurge in fighting that could tip the country into an utter starvation, wiping out all recent efforts against famine by March next year.

Aid and some small harvests have helped stave off famine in South Sudan, but any more fighting there could change that by next year, a senior World Food Programme (WFP) official said on Friday.

For now, four million South Sudanese people still stare starvation dead in the eye. The number of people who are in emergency- or crisis-phase of food insecurity stands at 1.6 million, and famine can strike another million people across the country early next year if the war escalates. If peace does not prevail, hundreds of thousands more could be displaced from their homes, and an estimated 2.5 million people are projected to be in emergency- or crisis-levels of food insecurity from January to March 2015.

“Bear in mind the population of the country is around 11 million people.  The scale of this crisis is appalling, and it is a man-made crisis,” said UNICEF Press Officer Kathryn Donovan, who returned from South Sudan just last week. Donovan, was in Bentiu just days ago, where she said 49,612 people live in what she described as some of the worst conditions imaginable.

The conditions are particularly poor for women and children whose bodies are the battleground of conflict in South Sudan, Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, said in a press release in regard to the rising sexual violence.

“In all my life and experience of nearly 30 years in public service and in the UN and as a government minister, I have never seen what I have seen today,” Bangura said after visiting the U.N. camp in Bentiu. “I come from Sierra Leone. I had the war. I was in the capital city when (it) fell. We picked bodies from streets and buried them…I worked in Liberia for two years… I have gone to Somalia, I have gone to DRC, I have gone to the Central African Republic and I have gone to Bosnia… but I have never seen what I saw today,” she said.

One-fifth of women are affected by gender-based violence, and 79 percent feel that their husband or partner has the right to hit or beat them. This number seems even worse as 45 percent of South Sudanese girls between 15 and 19 years old are already in wedlock—seven percent of females between 15 and 49 years old were married even before their 15th birthdays.

For those whose husbands have left them to join armed groups, life isn’t any easier. They’re left alone to support their households of to 25 people.

“Clearly, women are struggling to provide for their families, and especially if there is no breadwinner in the family unit,” Donovan said. “I have seen women gathering firewood, fetching water, beading, embroidering, selling vegetables and cooking. Today in Juba, I saw a woman collecting plastic containers out of the trash and along the side of the road. There are a group of women who break stones all day long. One girl I met, just 17, was breaking stones for $100 for two months—money she used to support her two small siblings.”

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Supporting their families is their primary role, since most girls don’t go to school anymore. According to Education Management Information System (EMIS) 2012, only seven percent of girls in the country currently complete the eight-year primary school cycle and only 1.6 percent of over 420,000 girls between the ages of 14-17 years who complete primary school enroll in secondary school.

For South Sudan to move forward, Donovan said peace is a prerequisite. “The children of South Sudan need nutrition, education, protection, not to mention play,” she said. “This fighting is hijacking their childhoods and jeopardizing their futures, and it has to stop.”

In spite of critical challenges, aid agencies have managed to reach 92 percent (or 3.5 million people) of the 3.8 million people targeted for assistance as of last week.

More resources are, however, required to sustain the life-saving operations as the number of those in dire need of help remains high. As of October, the estimated number of civilians seeking safety in ten Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites located on UNMISS bases is 100,298 including 28,010 in Juba (Tomping and UN House), 18,374 in Malakal, 2,722 in Bor, 49,612 in Bentiu, 447 in Wau, 1,105 in Melut and 28 in Nasser.

As of November 7th, the $1.8 billion USD South Sudan Crisis Response Plan was 62 percent funded ($1.116 billion). Partners have reached 68 percent the 275,000 people targeted for education assistance, according to the South Sudan Situation Report. Of those reached, 42.4 percent are girls. Food distributions were completed without any hitches in number of locations, as well, and healthcare measures have reached more than 3.4 million people, representing 110 percent of the 3.1 million people targeted. Some 945,619 children have been vaccinated against measles, and 927,584 children vaccinated against polio. and WASH services in PoC sites and displacement settlements are scaling up hygiene and sanitation efforts. Still, more than 5.8 million people are in need of various forms of medical support in South Sudan.

Another $697 million USD is required to sustain the response and enable aid workers to reach the 3.8 million people targeted by end of December. Emergency telecommunications, education, protection and multi-sector assistance to refugees are among the least-funded sectors.

Aid agencies are looking at maximize response during the projected dry season and require $269 million now to kick-start operations for 2015. Planned activities include upgrading key infrastructure and pre-positioning relief items by road, before the next rainy season in May 2015.

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