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Three-out-of-four South Sudanese children have known nothing but war, says Unicef

2.6 million children have been born in wartime South Sudan since independence seven years ago.

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UNITED NATIONS –At least 2.6 million of South Sudan’s 3.4 million babies, or three quarters of them, have been born in war as the country has not seen peace since gaining independence in 2011, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said Saturday.

South Sudan turns seven on Monday but there will hardly be anything worth celebrating about the independence that has been shrouded in prolonged gloom.

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan was led by President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his deputy Dr Riek Machar in what was seen as a new phase for the new nation that was coming out of five decades of civil war against the Arab north.

However, come Monday, Machar will be a rebel leader or a fourth vice-president in a country where every other politician who has taken up arms against Gen Kiir’s government seem to be given the vice presidency position.

“As South Sudan turns seven, a seemingly endless war continues to devastate the lives of millions of children,” said Henrietta H. Fore, Unicef’s executive director, who visited Juba, Ganiyel and Bentiu in the war-ravaged country earlier this year.

Conflict and underdevelopment have plagued the resource-rich country for decades, leaving its children out of school, malnourished and vulnerable to disease, abuse and exploitation.

“Warring parties can and must do more to bring back peace,” Fore said, “The children of South Sudan deserve better.”

After gaining independence in 2011, a civil war erupted in 2013 – rendering short-lived the prospect of a better future.

Although 800 children have been released from armed groups since the beginning of the year, an estimated 19,000 others continue to serve as fighters, porters and messengers and to suffer sexual abuse, which is up from 500 since the war broke out.

The proportion of people who do not know where their next meal is coming from jumped from 35 per cent in 2014 to nearly 60 per cent at present, with some areas of the country just one step away from famine, especially during the lean season.

Malnutrition rates are at critical levels, as more than one million children are malnourished, including 300,000 on the brink of death.

With one-in-three schools destroyed, occupied or closed since 2013, the conflict has also left some two million children without an education, earning South Sudan the distinction of having the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world.

Moreover, efforts to aid those in greatest need are being hampered, Unicef said. Many aid workers work in extremely risky situations with warring forces often targeting them.

Since 2013, more than 100 aid workers have been killed in the violence, including a driver for UNICEF just last week.

While a massive number of refugees had returned when the country first gained independence, sinde . However, since 2013, more than 2.5 million, including over one million children, have again fled for safety in neighboring countries.

Last week, the Juba government and the rebels led by Machar singed “a permanent ceasefire” in Khartoum under the auspices of Generals Omar al Bashir and Yoweri Museveni – offering a flicker of hope in what has been a faltering peace process.

By Saturday, reports suggested that Kiir had restored Machar to vice president, which will make him the fourth such leader.

“We now count on the leadership and commanders to respect it while ensuring that aid workers are given unrestricted access to those in need,” said Fore.

Flagging that South Sudan was the first country she visited as UNICEF chief, she concluded by saying: “I saw for myself how harmed children have been by the war. They simply cannot endure anymore.”

However, whether the truce is sustained remains to be seen considering that the two bushwar comrades do not appear to have mended their relations. To make matters worse, other rebels remains active, most recently, a group led by former Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Paul Malong Awan.

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