Not just 'Lost Boys,' but 'Lost Girls' – in war-torn South Sudan

The previous Sudanese civil war and US humanitarian efforts gave world attention to the 'Lost Boys.' But scant attention is paid to 'Lost Girls.' As South Sudan plunges back into conflict, the risks that girls face are mounting. 

Andreea Campeanu/REUTERS
South Sudanese girls, who have been displaced by the fighting, sit by a tent in a camp for displaced persons in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Tongping in Juba, February 19, 2014.

A version of this post originally appeared on Enough Said. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Though the plight of the widely publicized lost boys is well known, the story of Sudan’s "Lost Girls" is often overlooked.

While the new feature film The Good Lie documents the story of three lost boys and their sister’s journey to the United States, few of Sudan's Lost Girls were afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts, though they faced many of the same challenges.

An article in the Boston Globe, "How the lost girls became the forgotten girls," highlights that out of 3,700 children chosen to start a new life in America, only 89 were girls. The reason for the discrepancy is not just that these girls were overlooked, but that there are social and cultural norms against it. Also, most orphaned girls were adopted by refugee families or married young.

In the three years since South Sudan gained independence, the challenges facing women and girls have been staggering. For poverty stricken families with limited resources, priority is often given to boys to attend school. Girls are often responsible for domestic chores in rural households and may be married off at a young age.   

Now that South Sudan has returned to fighting, girls are at even greater risk of sexual and gender based violence. An Amnesty International report released in May 2014 documented horrific accounts of violence against women and girls as a result of the civil war.

The risk of sexual violence for girls rises exponentially with armed conflict.  Al Jazeera recently drew attention to the rise of child prostitution in the capital city Juba. “Up to 500 girls out of Juba's estimated 3,000 street children could be engaged in child prostitution,” the piece suggests.

Previously, most of Juba’s sex workers were from neighboring countries. Many returned home when the fighting broke out, leaving South Sudanese girls to fill the gap in the market place. The breakdown in family structures during wartime and the loss of parental figures has forced some children to seek out alternative ways to make a living. Boys may become child soldiers, but for girls with few alternative options, prostitution is often the most lucrative means to do so.

The 2014 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report notes that, “Child prostitution continued to rise in Juba during the reporting period, as did the number of street children and child laborers -- two groups that are highly vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation.”

To make matters worse, those that are supposed to protect children, including the police, are often complicit in their abuse. So far, South Sudan's government has failed to prosecute any individuals for crimes related to child prostitution. Without swift action by the government, the exploitation of children will continue with impunity.

Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC), a local non-profit, has been deeply engaged in responding to the increased risks the conflict has posed for young boys and girls. A recent visit by Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton as part of a UN tour, beautifully documents the brave work of CCC and the support and love for girls and boys brought by the group, founded and directed by Cathy Groenendijk.

A new generation of Lost Girls is already at risk by the renewed conflict. Until the war is brought to an end by creating consequences for South Sudan’s warring elites, groups such as CCC can only just begin to skim the surface of the needs of South Sudan’s lost boys and girls.  

Former Enough Project intern Irina Balytsky contributed to this post.

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