South Sudanese Girls in Disasters

Martha looking through window
of the abandoned primary school
in Pibor, Jonglei

Africa’s newest nation offers a future of potential and prosperity but for many girls and young women in South Sudan, there remains little hope in sight. The complex emergency there harshly illustrates how adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable in times of crisis and how extreme events can starkly map out their future.

The journey for girls in this country is a difficult one at the best of times – with most barely making it to their early teenage years before being pulled from school and into a life of early marriage, childbirth and servitude. With the country tackling a combination of recurrent floods and water shortages on the one hand, and struck by violence and insecurity on the other, the risks for abuse are magnified. The conflict has led to a large number of people being displaced in some counties, with many living in makeshift camps and others fleeing to live in the bush, unaided, often for months at a time.

Many families have been separated by the crisis and conflict, which often leaves women and children to fend for and protect themselves. In addition to everyday survival, adolescent girls and young women are being forced to put their personal safety at risk, running the gauntlet of violence -- abuse by armed forces -- as they search for food, water and shelter.

Living in Fear

Mary-Joseph, 23, is a young woman with a flashing smile dressed in a t-shirt which proclaims: ‘Love Southern Sudan.” She fled to the bush, terrified, with her three children, when she witnessed her neighbor’s two young boys shot by troops. She remained there for some three months, surviving by eating leaves and wild fruits. Now relocated to a sprawling camp on the outskirts of Pibor’s airstrip, Jonglei, Mary-Joseph has food and shelter, but does not feel safe. She has a daughter in her early teens and she worries about her safety. She says once girls become adolescents they are vulnerable to attacks.

She says that in Pibor, soldiers make children, often girls, wash their clothes and do chores – offering them leftover food remnants as reward. But teenage girls and young women are often preyed upon.

“Many of the girls sell milk in the market. The soldiers sometimes get them to bring it to their homes, luring them in. Once inside, they rape them. In the bush, it’s safer but there’s no food. Here, it’s better – but there’s no protection. You have to take a risk.”

While food shortages push boys into hazardous child labor and recruitment as child soldiers, girls are more prone to being married off than in times of normality. “My father often says: I am a very beautiful and that I would fetch him many cows as dowry when he marries me off, especially during years of poor harvest,” said Martha, aged 10, who lives in Dor in the Lakes state.

“Therefore, he says, I should not bother myself about education but that I should stay at home and wait to be married. At the back of my mind I am fully aware that my father is waiting for someone to come and ask for my hand in marriage.”

She says many girls are married off at around 14, to ease family’s poverty.

Hoping for an Education

In Pibor, any hope for girls and boys attending school has been obliterated. Fighters ransacked the Plan built and supported school, wrecking precious textbooks, pencils, stationery, and water filters.

The children still congregate at the site though, playing, holding meetings and, somewhat sadly, conducting mock lessons in the shells of classrooms. The neglected school yard is knee-deep in grass, slowly being reclaimed by the landscape.

Classmates Martha and Nyalima, both aged eight, play in the wrecked school but remember it in happier times.

“I want it as it was, so I can get an education, but it’s destroyed. There’s nothing to do here now,” says Nyalima.

Acting County Commissioner Moses Ajak says things are currently more peaceful. “The sound of a bullet hasn’t been heard for some time” he says. “The school could resume but where are the teachers, where are the pupils? We need peace to come. But we have to start from zero. The buildings were destroyed, the books, we need pencils, pens, teachers…”

At the school, a girl in a beautiful scarlet dress wanders in from the village towards the school, joining the others, running in and out of the teacher’s rooms and skipping over the remains of textbooks on the ground.