Children of South Sudan

Realizing Children’s Rights in South Sudan

South Sudan has been involved in two civil wars. Due to the conflict, serious violations against children rights, such as lack of access to food and health services, recruitment of children into armed groups, killing or injuring of children, school drop outs and severe poverty, has been documented. The world’s youngest nation must fully implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to achieve its potential and to transform South Sudanese children’s lives.

Children’s Rights Index: 4,86/10
Black level: Very serious situation

Population: 10.9 million
Pop. ages 0-14:

Life expectancy: 58.6 years
Under-5 mortality rate:

South Sudan at Glance

The Republic of South Sudan seceded from Sudan on the 9th July 2011 making it the youngest nation in the world.South Sudan is a landlocked country in East-Central Africa. The country is bordered to the north by Sudan, to the east by Ethiopia, to the west by the Central African Republic, to the south-west by Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and to the south by Uganda and to the south-east by Kenya.

Prior to 2011, South Sudan was part of Sudan which has been the site of two civil wars, the first being a lengthy civil war from 1955 to 1972. The Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972 ended the conflict only temporarily and in the next decade widespread fighting resumed with the second civil war from 1983 to 2005 (Robert O. Collins, 2019).

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended Africa’s longest running civil war outlined new measures of sharing power and exempted the south from Islamic Sharia law but more significantly it granted the southern Sudan semi-autonomous status and stipulated that a referendum on independence for the region would be held in six years (Robert O. Collins, 2019). South Sudan proclaimed its independence from Sudan in 2011 after over twenty years of conflict which claimed the lives of at least 1.5 million people and more than four million were displaced (BBC News, 2018).

In 2013, tensions spiked when the president, Salva Kiir fired the entire cabinet in late July which included the vice president Riek Machar. By December fighting broke out, igniting the South Sudanese Civil War. Over 2.2 million people were displaced by the fighting and severe famine put the lives of thousands at risk(BBC News, 2018). Numerous ceasefires were mediated by the international community.

In 2015, a peace deal was reached which reinstalled Machar as the vice president, but fighting broke out again. In 2018, a new peace agreement was reached with the aim of setting up a government of national unity which was twice postponed (The Independent, 2020). In February 2020, Kiir and Machar agreed on a peace deal and formed a unity government comprising government and opposition leaders (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

In South Sudan, the largest ethnic group is the Dinka who constitute about two-fifths of the population followed by the Neur who constitute about one-fifth. Other groups include the Zande, the Bari, the Shilluk, and the Anywa and there is a small Arab population. English was made the official working language and the language of instruction for all levels of education under South Sudan’s 2011 Transitional Constitution and there are over 60 indigenous languages spoken(Robert O. Collins, 2019). Although South Sudan faces several issues in order to achieve its potential, significant changes are necessary for a full realization of children rights in the country.

Status of Children Rights [1]

South Sudan ratified the UNCRC in 2015 making the country the 195th state to ratify the convention. South Sudan has ratified other key international treaties aimed at protecting children from abuse and neglect, such as the Optional Protocols on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts (UN Treaty Body Database, 2020).

However, South Sudan is yet to ratify the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) (ACERWC, 2020). The South Sudan Legislative Assembly has passed the ACRWC but certain formalities are still pending for full ratification (The Child’s Rights Civil Society Coalition, 2016). UNCRC provisions were incorporated into national law through the South Sudan Child Act 2008 and Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan 2011(The Child’s Rights Civil Society Coalition, 2016).

The Child Act 2008 provides a comprehensive legal framework for realizing child rights in line with international law and sets out the rights and duties of all parties responsible for the care of children(The Child’s Rights Civil Society Coalition, 2016). Additionally, the government has developed a new Labour and Employment Bill which sets out the minimum age for employment, addresses the worst forms of child labour and the terms and conditions under which children over the age of 14 years are not exposed to such as poor working conditions and disregard for health and safety measures. Furthermore, it has developed the Policy for Children Without Caregivers (The Child’s Rights Civil Society Coalition, 2016)

Despite this progress towards building a robust legislative and policy framework for addressing child protection concerns, violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect continue to be a daily reality in the lives of most South Sudanese children (The Child’s Rights Civil Society Coalition , 2016).

Addressing the Needs of Children

Right to Education

Under the Article 14 of the Child Act 2008, every child has the right to free education at the primary level which is compulsory (Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development, 2009); however, more than two million children or over 70% are out of school in South Sudan putting at risk their futures and the future of the country (UNICEF South Sudan, 2020). Some out-of-school children are living in pastoral communities, taking care of their cattle and are not able to attend regular classes. The largest group of out-of-school children are in fact girls. Factors behind situation are high levels of poverty, child marriage and cultural and religious views that hinder girl’s education.

Lack of infrastructure, limited human resources and insufficient teaching and learning materials, coupled with the massive disruption caused by the conflict, imply that not all children enter primary school (UNICEF, 2020). The number of primary school children has been decreasing every year since 2010. The situation has been exacerbated by the 2013-2015 conflict. In 2015, the equivalent of 34.7% of children of primary age in South Sudan were enrolled at primary school, a fall from 41.5% in 2013.

Prior to 2013, the main factors limiting school attendance were costs and distance. Costs include formal costs such as learning material and uniforms as well as informal charges sometimes demanded by schools, which particularly affect poorer families. Furthermore, roads and paths to school in South Sudan are often impassable during the wet season (UNICEF, 2020).

Recently, more girls are attending school but they continue to face additional challenges to implementing their education. Families with limited resources are more likely to send boys to schools instead of girls as an investment. Older girls may leave school to be married, some families may be reluctant for girls to walk long distances to school because of security concerns, some parents do not send girls to school for fear they will get pregnant, as pregnancy and motherhood reduce bride price (UNICEF, 2020).

Moreover, only an estimated 4% of over 800,000 children with disabilities in South Sudan attend school. There are insufficient teachers trained to address special needs, very little specialized equipment and few accessible school buildings (UNICEF, 2020). Stigma around disability can increase vulnerability and deprivation by reducing parents’ desire to send their children to school.

Since the South Sudanese Civil War commenced in 2013 this has further worsened children’s access to education (UNICEF, 2020). Since the crisis began, at least 866,000 school-aged children have been displaced, often to areas without access to protective learning spaces or to host communities where education resources are non-existent or overstretched (UNICEF, 2020). An estimated 413,000 children have been forced out of school because of conflict, in the conflict-affected states some schools have been destroyed while others have been taken over by armed forces or armed groups or have become shelter for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

However, the Back-to-Learning initiative led to 559,450 children (target 500,000) being brought back to and retained at school in partnership with 29 international and national civil society organizations (UNICEF, 2018). To support this, 460 temporary learning spaces were established with 38 classrooms rehabilitated by implementing partners (UNICEF, 2018). Challenges persist in inaccessible counties in Greater Upper Nile and conflict-affected parts of southern Unity and Western Equatoria where schools are either closed or functioning irregularly.

In 2019, 6,368 teachers (1,234 females) were trained on education in emergencies, basic pedagogy and learner-centred methodologies (UNICEF, 2019). A total of 1,724 (245 females) were trained on life skills and an additional 4,270 members of the Parents-Teacher Association (PTA) (1,281 females) in UNICEF-supported schools were trained on their roles and responsibilities to improve the capacity to manage schools.

Right to Health

Health services in South Sudan remain extremely constrained and at best these services are partly operational often leaving the women and children most affected due to the lack of accessibility or availability of health services (UNICEF South Sudan, 2019). The country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (789 deaths per 100,000 live births).

Apart from that, around 75% of all child deaths in South Sudan are due to preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia (UNICEF , 2020). Active measles transmission is ongoing in Ikotos, Budi, Aweil South and Maban (UNICEF South Sudan, 2019) which is why reactive vaccination campaigns are being implemented in these counties to control the outbreak spread.

Family healthcare practices and health seeking behaviours are poor, as reflected by late consultations, high levels of home births and poor hygiene practices (UNICEF South Sudan, 2019). Social mobilization activities with comprehensive messaging are being scaled up to sustain community demand for health services and appropriate care practices. The government continues to spend far less than 15% of the budget on health, despite the commitment made under the Abuja Declaration on Health (The Child Rights Civil Society Coalition, 2016).

The total health sector staffing stood at 10% of actual need, whereas approximately 80% of health services are provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with only 20% provided by the government (UNICEF South Sudan, 2019). Immediate challenges include poor road networks, necessitating the use of costly charter flights to transport supplies to some locations. With dry season comes the opening up of transport routes, but also increased likelihood of ambushes and looting of supplies. In the wet season this leaves approximately 60% of the limited road network in the country inaccessible (UNICEF South Sudan, 2019).

Despite all these challenges, South Sudan has made progress to rectify these issues. In 2018, 2,678,863 people (1,161,446 children under the age of five) received life-saving treatment mainly for malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea (UNICEF, 2018). Cases were managed through community programming and UNICEF. Partners strengthened case management by training front-line health workers about childhood illness and improved the community case management system. This enabled 920,870 children to access malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea treatment (UNICEF, 2018).

Malaria continues to account for 45% of deaths among all age groups which is why UNICEF provided 187,423 families with two mosquito nets each (75% of the target). Indoor residual spraying was undertaken in two of the country’s largest processes of the civilian sites’ protection, in Bentiu and Malakal, with 25,431 dwellings sprayed and 145,576 individuals protected. This eventually reduced malaria incidence by 55% (UNICEF, 2018).

Right to Water and Sanitation

In South Sudan, 50% of the population lacks access to safe water, which may force families to drink dirty water putting them at risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea, the leading causes of death among children in South Sudan (UNICEF South Sudan, 2020). The situation is further aggravated by poor hygiene practices with a longstanding environment of poverty and lack of infrastructure (UNICEF South Sudan Country Office, 2019) which inevitably results in outbreaks of diseases affecting children and vulnerable people.

Due to the outbreak of the South Sudan civil war in 2013, the majority of the sustainable WASH developments projects designed for implementation in rural and urban settings were suspended (UNICEF South Sudan Country Office, 2019). This protracted conflict has continued to affect the poor rate of access to basic facilities including safe water. This, in turn, increased children’s vulnerability to waterborne diseases, mainly diarrhoea. Additionally, exceptionally heavy rains in July 2019 affected some 908,000 people in 32 counties in South Sudan, including 490,000 children (UNICEF South Sudan Country Office, 2019).

Since January 2020, the WASH programme has provided 165,913 people access to safe drinking water through water trucking, construction of new and the rehabilitation of non-functional water facilities (UNICEF, 2020).  A total of 4,728 individuals were provided with access to basic sanitation facilities through the construction and rehabilitation of emergency communal latrines and household latrines. In relatively stable communities in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Eastern Equatoria states, Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) programmes are implemented as an approach to improve sanitation (UNICEF, 2020).

Right to Identity

No legislation was in place to record births or issue birth certificates when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011. Coupled with the civil war in 2013, the vast majority of births (some 65%) still go undocumented (Crittle, 2018). In order to address this issue, the Ministry of Health with assistance from UNICEF launched a pilot programme to register births. More than 100,000 newborns have been registered in two of South Sudan’s 32 states (Crittle, 2018). 

Children under the age of 5 have been entered into a computer database as well as being given the notification documents. Children over 5, who were yet to be registered, were given new documents. Previously they were recorded on a paper-based system(Crittle, 2018). The implementation of a birth registry will reduce the number of stateless children in the country as well as ensure that the children of South Sudan have access to basic facilities such as healthcare and education

Risk Factors → Country-Specific Challenges

Street Children and Child Poverty

Children living on the streets are very vulnerable to exploitation and violence. This places street children in a difficult position as they are unable to access vital services and are at risk of getting into conflict with the law. In 2013, it was estimated that 3,000 children were living and working on Juba’s streets, either without parental care or with caretakers who were unable to support the children financially or meet their basic needs (UNICEF, 2020).

A contributing factor to the problem is the civil war, since the war orphaned a significant number of children and impoverished families who survived the war (Kibret, 2015). It is diffcult to attain an exact number of children on the streets although it has been documented there is a proportion of children who turn to the streets for employment purposes, followed by parental loss, child abuse and strict regulations at home (Gore, et al., 2015). 

From 2009 to 2016, the poverty headcount jumped from 51% to 82%, meaning the vast majority of the population was living under the international poverty line of $1.90 as of 2016 (Finn, 2019). Poverty in South Sudan is primarily in the rural areas of the country, this is characterized by a general lack of access to services, infrastructure and economic opportunity(Finn, 2019 ). Contributing to the lack of economic opportunity is the fact that decades of conflict have had a devastating impact on the national education system.

Consequently, the country has one of the lowest literacy rates in Africa, with only 4 out of 10 people being able to read. Infrastructure is also severely lacking and only about one in eight people have access to adequate water and sanitation services(Finn, 2019).

Displaced Children

South Sudan is one of the most fled countries in the world, alongside Syria, Afghanistan and Venezuela (Mercy Corps, 2019). Since December 2013, brutal conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and driven nearly four million people from their homes (UNHCR, 2020). As a consequence, over two million children have fled their homes. Children make up 62% of the more than 1.8 million South Sudanese refugees who have arrived mainly in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan (Aljazeera, 2017). Meanwhile, more than a million children have been internally displaced (Aljazeera, 2017).

A small percentage of people have reportedly returned to their villages where there is relative stability, but most remain in their places of refuge(Mercy Corps, 2019). The majority of displaced families live outside the camps, wherever they can find shelter – often in small villages that offer some security, tucked away from the main areas of fighting. For those running from violence, there is no other choice but to flee into the wild away from their natural habitat(Mercy Corps, 2019).

While refugee camps provide a safe haven for those fleeing, they are not designed to be a long-term solution. Often camps are overcrowded with inadequate sanitation, hygiene practices and waste disposals. These conditions are further worsened with heavy rains which flood the camps(Mercy Corps, 2019). Therefore, the children are deprived of their basic rights and are easily prone to the effects of diseases and recruitment of gangs

Child Exploitation

Thousands of children are used by armed forces and armed groups for combat. Moreover, 50% of all girls are married before they are 18 years old, gender-based violence is widespread and thousands of children are separated from their parents leaving them vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation (UNICEF, 2020). Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a problem in South Sudan; however, the scale is difficult to ascertain (UNICEF, 2020). It appears that many sex workers are aged 13 to 16 and may be survivors of abuse or trafficked internally or from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia or the DRC (UNICEF, 2020).  

Children in South Sudan engage in the worst forms of child labour including in armed conflict and cattle herding (U.S Department of Labour, 2020). However, the labour inspectorate does not have sufficient resources to conduct inspections and does not hold accountable the perpetrators of child labour. In addition, the government has yet to ratify the UN Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons 2000 (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2000) and police continues to indiscriminately arrest and imprison children engaged in commercial sexual exploitation rather than treat them as victims (U.S Department of Labour, 2020).

South Sudan has ratified most key international conventions concerning child labour; however, gaps still exist in the country’s legal framework to adequately protect children from the worst forms of child labour, and implement the compulsory education age (U.S Department of Labour, 2020).

Child Soldiers

Since civil war broke out in December 2013 forces loyal to President Kiir and forces loyal to Machar have continued to recruit children into their ranks. Despite both sides of the civil war signing the Compromise Peace Agreement in 2015 which included a cease-fire, a pledge to negotiate a power-sharing agreement and agreeing to end the use of children in armed forces and in armed groups, the pace of coercive recruitment and the number of related forced abductions appeared to increase in the first six months of 2015 (UNICEF, 2020).

UNICEF estimates that up to 16,000 children, mostly boys, have been recruited from December 2013 to October 2015, and used by both armed forces of the civil war. The roles of the children have varied to include combatants, porters, cooks and wives, all these putting children in great danger (UNICEF, 2020).

As of 2018 the continued recruitment and use of children in the civil war was recorded (U.S Department of Labour, 2020), with the highest levels of recruitment, use and re-recruitment of children in Unity, Greater Equatoria area, Upper Nile and Jonglei. The national army of South Sudan and the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLM), forcibly abducted children from their homes, schools and communities (U.S Department of Labour, 2020).

There has been some success in freeing children recruited into armed groups. The National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) in collaboration with international partners successfully released 303 children associated with armed groups (224 boys; 79 girls) and enrolled them in reintegration programmes in Western Equatoria, Central Equatoria, Unity and Northern Bahr al-Ghazal States (UNICEF, 2019).

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage

At 1%, prevalence of FGM for women aged 15-49 years in South Sudan is significantly lower than in neighbouring countries: 90% in Sudan, 80% in Ethiopia and 32% in Kenya (UNICEF, 2020). FGM is a criminal offence under section 258 of the Penal Code Act (Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development, 2009) and 80% of the South Sudanese population disapproves of the practice.

However, a practice entitled “girl compensation” occurs in some communities in Eastern Equatoria. If violence has occurred between two families and someone has been killed, a girl is given to the aggrieved family as compensation (UNICEF, 2020). The girls, who have no opportunities for education and development, are sexually exploited and they bear the stigma of shame for their family’s actions for the rest of their lives. They leave their families at an early age to live with the new family which causes psychological stress. They are burdened with work, expected to give birth to contribute to the new family and sometimes forced into marriage (UNICEF, 2020).

Child marriage remains high in South Sudan. It is a grave child rights violation leading to early pregnancies and putting the lives of both mother and the child at risk (UNICEF, 2019). Girls and boys are deprived of education and ultimately the effects of early marriage are long-lasting. Around 45% of girls in South Sudan are married before the age of 18, placing South Sudan as one of the countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage worldwide (UNICEF, 2019).

Many South Sudanese communities see marriage as being in the best interests of girls and their families (UNICEF, 2020). It is also an important way for families to access much needed resources such as cattle, money and other gifts via the traditional practice of paying bride price (UNICEF, 2020).

Environmental Challenges

South Sudan is facing a wide variety of environmental and natural resource challenges such as land and soil degradation, widespread deforestation, loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitats, pollution of rivers and air. The environmental situation in the country has been further affected by armed conflicts which has led to food insecurity and insufficient access to safe water. South Sudan relies on subsistence agriculture, a flourishing agriculture sector is very important to the long-term development of the country. (World Health Organization, 2020).

In South Sudan, 80% of the population relies on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. Also, their heavy dependence of fuelwood and charcoal is estimated to contribute to an annual deforestation rate of between 1.5 and 2.0% (UN Environment Programme, 2018). Environmental factors have an impact on health; there has been an increase in environment-related diseases such as malaria, typhoid and water diarrhoeal diseases (World Health Organization, 2020). This situation is largely due to widespread water contamination by urban surface runoff and poor environmental sanitation which is the result of inadequate disposal of both solid and liquid wastes.

Written by Igi Nderi

Last updated on 8 September 2020


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[1] This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in South Sudan; indeed one of many challenges is the scant updated information on South Sudanese children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.