1 June 2018: South Sudan’s girls tell of heartbreak and hardship amid unending conflict: report

Australian researchers have revealed one in four South Sudanese girls have contemplated suicide as the conflict-ravaged country enters its fifth year of war and its second year of severe food shortages. 

A report by Plan International Australia and Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security research centre - Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Voices from South Sudan – tells of girls’ struggles, their fears and hopes for the future as conflict and the food crisis continues in the beleaguered country. 

Based on a survey with 250 girls aged 10 to 19-years-old in five locales in South Sudan and interviews with girls living in refugee camps in Uganda, the report found: 

  • One in four girls said they considered ending their lives at some point during the past year. 
  • Three-quarters of those interviewed said conflict had negatively affected their state of mind. 
  • A third of the girls surveyed said they had been injured as a result of the conflict.
  • 13% said they had been abducted at some point.
  • More than half (52%) of girls were married before the age of 18.
  • The majority (85%) of girls who had ever been pregnant were not in school. 
  • All girls were worried about the growing food insecurity and the majority reported going to bed hungry.

The girls reported experiencing threats of murder, abduction, rape and sexual assault, particularly when seeking food, water or firewood for their families. Some had been forced into early child marriage as a means of survival. Many are psychologically scarred by years of hardship and abuse.

“I do not feel safe walking around during the day because girls often become victims of rape in the area,” a girl in Nimule, a town in the Southern part of the country, told researchers. 

“I am pessimistic about the future because I think things are going to get worse – intense war in the country, rampant sickness among the people, economic crisis, high rate of poverty within the community, poor education system and hospitals,” another girl in Torit, in the centre of the country, said. 

About four million people have been displaced by ongoing conflict in South Sudan; 2.4 million of them are children.  The United Nations estimates that almost two million girls and women are at risk of gender-based violence. “We will be beaten by unknown people. Because the security is not good a night. People can easily be killed or shot dead at night time,” a girl from Juba told Plan International’s research team. 

Plan International Australia’s CEO Susanne Legena said called the report was ‘extremely distressing’.

“The impact of long-term crises on girls is an under-researched area, but we now have a much clearer picture of how teenage girls suffer extraordinary hardship during conflict and famine,” Ms Legena said. 

“Girls are active targets of rape and violence, both at home and as a weapon of war. They work extremely hard to provide for their families, but are usually the last to eat and the first to be removed from school. Many are forced into child marriage as a means of survival. 
“We desperately need humanitarian programmes that protect adolescent girls first and foremost, and address the unique challenges they face at multiple levels.”

Report co-author Monash University’s Associate Professor Katrina Lee-Koo said the conflict in South Sudan has now entered its fifth year, causing massive disruption to the nutrition, education, physical health and safety, and emotional well-being of girls in their formative years. 

“Our report has sought to amplify the voices of South Sudanese girls. They have high hopes and ambitions for themselves and the future of their country.  However, amidst hunger, denial of education, and discriminatory and often violent community practices, it is hard for them to remain optimistic about the future.

“The ongoing conflict and food crisis will severely challenge their ability to have strong and independent futures. Girls told us that when the economic crisis hit, their families could no longer pay for their school fees, purchase them sanitary items, or provide them with resources such as study materials or clothes.

“Girls want to go to school, they want to stay with their family, they want to spend time with one another, they want to live lives free from violence, and they want to continue to positively contribute to their communities. Adolescent girls are the future of this young country. If South Sudan is to know lasting peace, it will need strong and empowered women and girls.”

Co-author Hannah Jay said early forced marriage was a concerning and common practice. 

“Adolescent girls say they feel they’re viewed as assets. We know early and forced marriage is in part driven by soaring costs of everyday items like food and clothing,” Ms Jay said. 

“However, child marriage cannot simply be excused as a convenient arrangement for families. It is the result of deeply entrenched gender inequality, harmful gender norms, continued conflict and family violence and ultimately robs girls of the right to determine their future.”

George Otim, Plan International’s Country Director in South Sudan, added: “So far the humanitarian response has not focused enough on the needs of adolescent girls. These girls have endured some of the most horrendous hardships imaginable. We need to tailor support around gender and age so that adolescent girls feel safe from violence and can continue with their education.”

Plan International Australia will use the findings from this report to inform their programming in South Sudan to ensure girls are prioritised in this emergency. 

The organisation is also calling on the Australian Government – which last year contributed $29 million to assist those caught up in the South Sudan crisis – to push forward with the development of a standalone action plan for ensuring our aid and foreign policy benefits adolescent girls as a particularly at-risk group. 

“South Sudanese girls told us that they would absolutely benefit from the provision of adolescent-friendly safe spaces and counselling. The Australian Government has, to its great credit, recently funded similar initiatives to support female Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and we would encourage future investment specifically for South Sudan’s girls caught up in this crisis as well,” Plan’s CEO Susanne Legena said.  

Plan International Australia is currently running an appeal to provide life-saving food and drought-resilient crops to girls and their families in South Sudan: https://my.plan.org.au/voices 

Media please note: Given the sensitive and potentially triggering nature of this content, please include details for crisis support lines in your reports:  Lifeline 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467.