South Sudan: The forgotten girls

Tom Perry
Haja 19: “Everyone ran even the families of the children killed ran they just had to run away we were all so scared”

Even before the crisis, South Sudan was one of the world’s worst places to be a girl.

Nearly half all South Sudanese girls are married before they are 18 years old, and 7% are married before age 15. Since conflict began over three years ago in South Sudan, tens of thousands people have been killed by war, hunger and disease; more than 1.8 million have fled their homes and villages; and the South Sudanese people are now facing what the United Nations has called ‘the world’s worst food crisis’.

As the world marks International Day Of The Girl (11 October 2014), we ask: is this the kind of life that any girl should have to experience?

Names have been changed.

Nyabel © CARE / Tom Perry

Nyabel (above) is 15 years old. The oldest of seven children, she is the de-facto leader of the children in her family. When soldiers attacked Nyabel’s hometown of Bongki in the far north of Unity state, hundreds of men, women and children were killed. Cattle, goats and other animals were rounded up and butchered, homes were torched to the ground. Nyabel’s aunt and uncle were both killed in front of the family.

Nyabel and her family ran, Nyabel carrying her younger brother and an eight-litre jerry-can. Some six days later, exhausted, thirsty and badly malnourished, they arrived in the town of Yida, where they sought refuge with a family friend, who has given them a place to sleep in a small mud hut, already home to another family. They are now living in Yida, but Nyabel can no longer attend school, and she says she and her brothers and sisters are always hungry.

“I really feel pity about what’s happened to my life. I was going to school, I was in Form 4. Now I’ve lost this year without any study.”

“We have nothing to eat,” said Nyabel.

I just hope peace comes, so that we can get the possibility of going to school, for a better future.

Muna © CARE / Tom Perry

18-year-old Muna (above) was with her family in their home when fighting broke out in the town. Muna went outside to gather water, and as she did a bullet hit the table next to her. “It was dark. I was so terrified, and immediately, our house was full of soldiers,” said Muna.

Muna fled to the nearby bush, before seeking refuge in the UN’s Protection of Civilians site, where she is still living today. In the panic of that January night, Muna became separated from two of her younger siblings. She has not seen them since - and had no news until she heard they were safe, but are now living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

“Not knowing where they were, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t shower. Knowing how [the soldiers] were firing their guns, I’d assumed they were dead,” said Muna.

I just wanted to know where they were. Now, I feel happier knowing that they are at least alive.

Arek, 18, her sister Nyan and daughter Akuch, fled when soldiers attacked their community in Panang, Unity state, killing their uncle, burning their home and possessions to the ground and slaughtering their livestock. They made the two-day walk from Panang to the town of Yida, where they are now sleeping on the floor of a stranger who took them in.

“Before the war, we were not worried. We had our belongings, we were cultivating crops, we had enough food. We could take our goods to sell and we could buy clothes,” said Arek.

Now, I have no option of going anywhere, I just want to have a permanent place to live. While I can no longer go to school, I do hope that my daughter can when she is older.

Tom Perry's picture

Tom Perry is Senior Media Advisor for CARE Australia