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Girls Taking on Role of Mothers During Conflict

South Sudanese refugees Emma* and Kathryn* in Baratuku camp.* Names have been changed to protect girls’ identities.
South Sudanese refugees Emma* and Kathryn* in Baratuku camp.
* Names have been changed to protect girls’ identities.
February 28, 2014

Separated from their parents during the conflict, South Sudan’s teenage refugee girls are taking on the role of mothers to their younger siblings in the Uganda camps. However, getting back to school – and normality – is key if the girls are to escape the burden of early parenthood, and survive the crisis with their education intact.

“We started hearing the gun shots while our parents were out, and we tried to stay at home, but we heard people screaming. So we packed our things and left.”

Emma* (pictured right) and her younger brothers fled from their home in South Sudan when the fighting broke out. Now they are alone in Baratuku refugee camp in northern Uganda, where Plan is providing crucial aid. They have been here for over a month, and they don't know if they will ever see their parents again.

“There’s no education and I can’t achieve my dream of being an accountant. I wanted to help my mum and my people. I wanted everyone to be educated,” says Emma, who is preparing a meal for her brothers over a fire. She fetches water and pounds the grain. “I don’t know where my mum is.”

Teenager Kathryn,* 17 (pictured left), says she would like to be at school – but she must now act as a mother to her three brothers.

“I ran with my brothers, without my friends. My mum was not around, so we came here. Getting water is difficult, so is getting food, we’re just children without a mum. It’s a problem.

“I want to study but I have to be their mum now, I have to stay with my siblings and be their mum until I find her.”

According to the latest UN figures, there are now 46,874 refugees from South Sudan in Uganda’s Adjumani region.

The refugee camps are overcrowded. More worrying, the camps, with their makeshift tents, stand on low lying land. When the rains come, they will be vulnerable to floods.

A large number of the family groups in the camps comprise children separated from their parents, with older female teenagers now taking on the parental role for their younger brothers and sisters.

According to original research published by Plan International in the report Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters, girls are at the greatest risk during disasters of falling behind with their education, and being subjected to gender-based abuse.

Sarah Aguti, Plan Uganda’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Coordinator, explains: “Girls have escaped the [conflict] and come here without parents, with their brothers and sisters. They have nothing and they don’t know where to start from. Little girls of 16 and 17 are taking care of their siblings.

“It’s the girls who are overloaded with household chores – they do the cooking, they look for firewood and fetch the water at five o’clock in the morning. We are also finding many challenges in terms of accessing water – girls in such a situation find it very hard to cope because they don’t have changing rooms and they share toilets, there’s no privacy. Girls are really suffering.”

Experts predict that the refugees may have to stay for up to two years in Uganda, with a return to South Sudan slow and difficult.

With education figures for girls in South Sudan already dire – according to UNESCO, South Sudan stands second-to-bottom in the world ranking for net enrollment in primary education and bottom for enrollment in secondary education – South Sudanese girls could be facing an education catastrophe.

“Longer term plans for the refugees are needed,” says Davies Okoko, Emergency Program Manager for Plan Uganda. “Some of them may be here for one year, two years minimum. So we need to start looking at the bigger picture of longer term response and stabilizing the community.

“The refugees’ needs are enormous – many have left South Sudan without anything so they are beginning from the bare minimum. The refugee children’s major need is education – they have to start attending school because the term has already started. But the schools here cannot absorb the whole influx of children.”

Plan is focusing on installing child-friendly spaces at both Baratuku and Nyumanzi camps, where children can play and meet up.

The charity is also providing water and sanitation aid, distributing soap, jerry cans, collapsible water tanks, and kitchen sets. Plan has also helped various families install household “tippy taps” to improve their levels of sanitation and hygiene.

Dr Unni Krishnan, Plan’s Head of Disaster Response and Preparedness, says: “Refugee children are doubly disadvantaged – both physically and emotionally. They are homeless and separated from their family. Separation from friends and family triggers anxiety and stress, but school helps to bring a sense of normalcy. Meeting new friends and education also speeds up recovery.”

Current UN reports show that there are now 149,700 refugees in the countries neighboring South Sudan – Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya.

Still more civilians are displaced in South Sudan itself after fighting broke out in December 2013 between the government and those loyal to opposition troops led by Riek Machar.

For now, over the border in Uganda, Kathryn looks after her brothers and sisters, and dreams that one day she will find her mother.

“I dreamt that I found her – I was very happy. Staying without your mum is not good. I want to be in a good place, and here is not a good place.”

*These names have been changed.