This summer, as South Sudan celebrates 10 years of independence, the country continues to suffer from conflict, underdevelopment and extreme poverty, all in the midst of a global pandemic.
We asked four 10-year-old girls from South Sudan to reflect on their lives now, and to share their hopes for what the next decade will bring — for them and for their country.
Rebecca wakes up early to prepare porridge for her younger siblings. After breakfast, she goes to the river to wash clothes.
“When I come back, I wash the utensils,” Rebecca says. “In the afternoon I pound millet and cook. After that, I sweep the compound and go to the borehole to fetch water. Afterwards, I prepare my siblings for bed.”
Rebecca’s parents spend their days working or searching for food, so most of the household responsibilities fall on her small shoulders. There’s not much time for rest or play. But right now, hunger and a lack of education are her most pressing concerns.
“What makes girls not able to finish school is hunger,” Rebecca says. “This forces girls to be married at a young age so their families can get money for their survival.”
The insecurity in Rebecca’s community is another reason why it’s difficult for children to go to school. “We were at home for a long time and have just gone back,” she explains. “Our state has terrible things. Community fighting and floods that stop us from going to school.
“We want a safe and good environment with no fighting, no conflict so that we can go to school and get a good education every day.”
Saraha wants to be a doctor one day. But, like Rebecca, instability in her community makes it difficult to get the education she’ll need to achieve her dream.
“It is not safe here due to the fighting,” Saraha says. “It’s affecting our education. When there is conflict, the displaced people stay in the school. During floods, they suffer a lot, and look for shelter. Our surroundings are not clean. It’s not good for people, especially children, to live in such a poor environment. It will make them sick.
“Our school needs to be a boarding school. The food that we eat must be good food. Teachers here are not paid well. That prevents them from providing us with a good education.”
Rita is one of more than a million South Sudanese refugees who fled to Uganda in 2016.
“The journey, according to my mother, was difficult because I was young and couldn’t walk for long distances, so I had to be carried by my five sisters who took turns,” Rita says. “We often had to stop and hide, especially when suspicious strangers crossed our path. We moved in groups for support with other refugees we met.”
Five years later, Rita and her family are still in the camp. “Life in the camp is okay. I can move around freely with my friends. We have access to clean water, free education and the mobile hospital," she continues. “At night, we are allowed to play with our friends, dodging the ball and skipping the rope. In the evenings most girls also have to collect water while the boys play football.
“My typical day revolves around cooking, fetching water and collecting firewood at the weekends. … I fear being raped by boys while out collecting firewood in the valleys without any adult supervision, especially during weekends and now when the schools are closed.
“I want my country to have the long-awaited peace so all the refugees can have the opportunity to return home to their motherland.”
Like Rita, Florence has lived in a refugee camp in Uganda since 2016 — nearly half her life.
“We live in huts that are hot during the day and cold at night,” Florence says. “I have good friends who always encourage each other to read and work hard in school. Most people in the camp rely on farming to supplement their food rations. They plant maize, cassava, okra and onions. All girls my age are expected to help our parents in the garden and do other chores like cooking.
“I had to repeat primary three because we lost the whole year in 2020. I also forgot most of my subjects because I did not have any home learning materials. I have seen so many young girls getting married because they no longer go to school and their parents cannot afford to look after them.
“When I collect firewood, I am always scared of being beaten by the community because they do not allow us to collect firwood beyond our borders. In our block we have no trees to use as firewood, so if we can’t cook due to a lack of firewood we might go hungry.
“I have seen so many social workers doing good for our community and I want to be like them. I want to go back and contribute to the development our country, especially on education. … No matter where I am, I am a proud South Sudanese and I would stand tall and take pride that I am finally back home where I belong.”
Plan International is working in South Sudan to protect children from violence and to ensure families are financially supported. Nutrition centers are treating malnourished children through supplementary feeding programs, and girl students are receiving food rations to share with their families, as an incentive to keep their daughters in school. We’re also providing emergency assistance to those displaced by conflict, improving living conditions for families in refugee camps in Uganda and addressing child protection concerns.
Despite the hardships they’ve endured, Rebecca, Saraha, Rita and Florence share the same vision for the country that was born the same year as them. They hope for a peaceful South Sudan, where all children can safely go to school. They understand that education is the key to a better future, and they know that they have the power within themselves to change the world — but they can’t do it alone.
With your continued support, we can help to keep girls safe, and equip them with the tools they need to make their dreams a reality.