Meet the girls and women on the front lines of South Sudan’s hunger crisis

By Catherine Rolfe
June 22, 2021

There’s another life Joyce could be living. At 12 years old, that Joyce is in school, learning to read and write and add and subtract. After her last class, Joyce and her younger brothers and sisters walk home. For dinner, their mother makes a delicious stew that warms their bellies before bed.

But it turns out that life was a delicate house of cards balanced on one key element: food. Without it, the whole thing falls apart.

Meet Joyce, a 12-year-old girl and Ngachower in South Sudan, a community volunteer dedicated to filling hungry bellies.
Joyce, 12, had to drop out of school in order to care for her younger siblings while her mother works.

The real Joyce had to drop out of school in December 2019. When flooding devastated most of the Pibor area of South Sudan, it washed away any hope of economic security for Joyce and her family, even before COVID-19. With crops and farms destroyed, food became scarce — and expensive. Joyce’s mother had to start working long hours at a nearby market, so she could earn enough money to buy food for Joyce and her five siblings. As the oldest child, Joyce was left to take care of her brothers and sisters.

“Since I am the only one able to cook and find firewood around the neighborhood, I had to stay home, as my mother went to look for food,” she explains.

It’s a role that girls like Joyce often have to play. Joyce’s mother knows that her oldest daughter is sacrificing her education, but she’s out of options.

“If I allowed her to go to school, who would then help me take care of the children when I have gone out to look for firewood or something to sell?” Joyce’s mother says. “I totally understand the value of education. When schools open and there is no conflict, she will return to school.”

Because that’s the other problem — violence. Armed groups are known to destroy farmland and steal livestock. They have been targeting civilians along ethnic lines in South Sudan since 2013, when violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers from the two largest ethnic groups over a political struggle. The last decade has been marred with fighting and conflict, coupled with disastrous flooding that destroyed homes and made entire communities inaccessible.

And then, COVID-19 hit. Schools and markets closed, and people were forced to stay indoors. The pandemic slowed supply chains around the world, causing shortages and skyrocketing prices. It’s difficult to find anything to eat, let alone something healthy. Now, the Pibor area has the highest rates of malnutrition in the country.

Community Volunteer Ngachower says the hunger crisis is affecting everyone.

“The community has nothing to eat except the food we get from Plan International,” she says. “All our cattle were raided by armed groups and our belongings were swept away by the floods, so we have to rely on others.”

Ngachower is a community volunteer in South Sudan, where she helps to identify and treat children with malnutrition.

Ngachower has taken it upon herself to visit families and identify cases of malnutrition. Every month, she visits all the households in her community who have children below the age of 5, screening around 50 children in total. At each home, she measures each child’s mid-upper arm circumference using a special tape. If the child’s arm is thin enough that it falls in the tape’s red, orange or yellow zones, she refers them for malnutrition treatment at a nearby nutrition center run by Plan. A circumference of about 5 inches or less indicates potential malnutrition.

Ngachower measures a child’s arm to check for malnutrition.

Ngachower recalls recently meeting a young mother whose 2-year-old daughter was severely malnourished. The following day, she took the mother and child to one of Plan’s nutrition centers. It took some convincing; many people in their community don’t think that malnutrition is dangerous and think that the child will overcome it as they get older.

Once malnutrition was confirmed, the nutrition center started the girl on a supplementary feeding program and provided her mother with training on healthy nutritional practices. The family also received water purification tablets to clean their drinking water.

A month later, Ngachower visited the family at home and was happy to see that the girl had made good progress. After measuring her arm, Ngachower was able to declare that she was no longer malnourished.

“We need to keep checking the child in the future to ensure she does not become malnourished again,” Ngachower cautions. “Although this case had a happy ending, there are many children who need our help to protect them from becoming malnourished.”


Right now, we’re witnessing the worst hunger crisis in years.

Plan is responding in central and east African countries, providing lifesaving relief for children and families like food and water kits, school meals and treatment for malnutrition. Your gift of $172 can feed 10 girls with school meals for two months. Will you help save girls’ lives?

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