Beatrice was only 11 years old when her parents died within months of each other, leaving four children between 2 and 12.
Instead of going to school, she began selling eggs and homemade alcohol in the local market, trying to provide for her siblings.
“It was not easy for me to care for them,” Beatrice – whose name has been changed for privacy – says today, 11 years later. But she had to “make sure that [we got] at least one meal a day.”
Becoming a breadwinner and caretaker would be challenging enough for any elementary-school child. But Beatrice’s task was all the harder because of where it happened: South Sudan, where children bear the heaviest burden from decades of war.
The country itself is young, having split from Sudan only in 2011. But years of conflict in Sudan, and a four-year civil war within the brand-new nation, have severely damaged the social and institutional fabric in ways that endanger basic human rights, particularly children’s. And a generation raised amid violence and fear faces particular challenges down the road, from psychological recovery, to education, to economic productivity.
“Their childhoods have been interrupted, which could have long-term negative consequences on the child’s emotional, cognitive, and social development,” says Sampathi Perera, a child protection specialist at UNICEF.
Those problems aren’t unique to South Sudan. Nearly 110 million children around the world live in conflict zones, and almost 1-in-4 of those are out of school, from Syria to the Central African Republic. But South Sudan boasts some of the grimmest statistics – and they may prove especially consequential in a country that is doubly young. Not only is South Sudan just six years old, but 45 percent of the population is age 14 or younger.
“The future of a generation is truly on the brink,” Leila Pakkala, UNICEF’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said in a statement last month.
Aid organizations are racing to address South Sudan’s most immediate needs, primarily hunger. But many are trying to design programs with an eye to these children’s more long-term well-being, as well – particularly those who, like Beatrice, are orphaned or separated from their families.
On the outskirts of Juba, a mesh wire fence encircles rows upon rows of white tents, one of the many Protection of Civilians sites scattered across South Sudan. Narrow dusty roads cut through the makeshift homes of families recently forced to take refuge.
Amid white flimsy tents is a “Child-Friendly Space,” the core of aid organizations’ response to children who make it to the camp. Kids are offered an array of activities, including reading, music, and sports, in a bid to channel their energy positively and keep them out of harm’s way.
Four years after the start of the civil war, which has pitted factions loyal to President Salva Kiir against supporters of his former deputy, Riek Machar, more than 270,000 children are believed to be malnourished, and 2 million have been internally displaced or fled the country, according to UNICEF. Seventeen thousand minors have been used as fighters, more than 3,000 have been abducted, and more than 1,000 sexually assaulted. Nearly three-quarters of children are out of school, the highest rate in the world.
And from malnutrition to recruitment, those traveling without parents or guardians are especially vulnerable. More than 75,000 children have crossed into neighboring countries without their families, according to UNICEF.
For traumatized children who arrive at refugee and displaced-person camps, child-friendly spaces are a bridge toward early recovery. But they’re not a long-term solution, and don’t reach all vulnerable children. While some make it to Protection of Civilians sites with their families, others are separated earlier on, meaning they face the highest risk of abuse and exploitation.
In 2014, 23 NGOs came together with Save the Children and UNICEF to establish a Family Tracing and Reunification program in the country, registering families in a country-wide database.
“[It is] one of the most effective child protection programs in South Sudan,” says Ismahan Ferhat, the child protection technical advisor for Save the Children. “Almost 5,000 children who were separated from their families due to the conflict were reunited with their parents or primary caregivers.”
When home is not the answer
But returning a child to family does not always ensure a safe environment, particularly as South Sudan’s ongoing conflict takes its social and emotional toll.
“Society has changed. The wars have dismantled the social fabric in the community,” said Cathy Groenendijk, founder of Confident Children out of Conflict [CCC], a children’s shelter in Juba.
Sixteen-year-old Grace, for example, lives today at CCC. Before moving in, however, she attacked a man who attempted to rape her sister after breaking into the family home. Their mother, whom Grace describes as alcoholic, was too intoxicated to react.
“She didn’t even know what happened,” says Grace, whose name has been changed for privacy. “I told her [what happened], and she told me I was lying.”
Similarly difficult memories are common.
“Some of the problems [arise] from what the children have seen, especially those involved in the conflict,” said Ms. Groenendijk, a no-nonsense woman who teaches love and discipline in equal measures. After experiencing abuse, some children “become violent, so you have to talk to them to teach them to think before they act.”
CCC aims to create a home-like environment, helping traumatized children learn to be children again in order to improve their chances of a happier, more stable future. It’s a place to sleep, but also provides psychological support, healthy food, and education, as well as activities like choir and sports.
Boys and girls are responsible for keeping the bedrooms neat – and other than a handful of cuddly toys peppered across the bunk beds, the rooms are immaculate. In the courtyard, tiny children jump up and down on a trampoline, while others bathe in large basins. Older girls finish the day’s homework in the computer room before helping out with the younger lodgers.
That sense of normalcy is sorely needed by many South Sudanese children, advocates say. More than one million children are thought to be in need of psychosocial support, according to Ms. Ferhat of Save the Children. Without attention, that trauma may mean problems for others, as well.
After all they’ve experienced, some of these children “are likely to adapt survival mechanisms that would probably be at ought with socially acceptable norms,” says Panther Alier Akuei, the country director of the nonprofit Smile Again Africa Development Organization, citing concerns about future crime.
Looking toward the future
But some say not enough funding is directed toward child protection in remote areas, resulting in too many children falling through the cracks.
“Unfortunately, I have not seen any rise in projects that support children in this country for the last few years,” says Mr. Alier. “Most projects tend to shy away from going into hard to reach areas,” he explains, reluctant to send staff to areas where “their lives are in danger.”
But advocates say they take hope from some children’s success – for each individual’s future, but also the country’s. Some of the children at CCC, for example, have managed to complete secondary school in neighboring countries, like Uganda, and are considering careers in medicine.
“Do you know what it means to live out there [on the street]? Once they go through that period and survive they will be the best social workers and changers. They will be spread around South Sudan doing a good job,” says Groenendijk. “They are a hope for me.”
Grace, now a bubbly teenager, is set to finish middle school this summer and hopes to become a social worker. “I would like to help children like me. [I’ll] make two centers, one for boys and one for girls to protect both of them,” says Grace. “Because they are both important.”