The refugee crisis has compounded a situation for women in South Sudan that is already difficult. Lack of education, forced marriages, early childbirth and multiple children make the women both heroes and victims.
Mary (see photo, below), a 24-year-old mother of five, sits on the bed breastfeeding her infant. The bottom of her long dress is muddy, for it’s the rainy reason in South Sudan. The mud, which lasts from April until October, makes the roads impassable, so Mary and her children are living in a refugee transit camp until they can move on.
Exiled as refugees
Mary’s family left Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, with a wave of people born in southern Sudan who were being forcibly repatriated. Her husband was killed during a border clash on their journey south. Now she alone is responsible for her large family. For two months they’ve been living in the transit camp in South Sudan’s north-eastern city of Malakal.
Mary is on her way back to the region of Western Equatoria, which was home before she moved to Khartoum as a teenager to start a new life in a better place.
Like many South Sudanese girls, Mary was deceived. After moving in with her uncle and cousin in Khartoum, she was put to work as a housemaid in their home, unpaid and mistreated. After buying her a new dress and shoes, Mary’s uncle forced her to marry an older man, a custom fuelled by large dowries. Mary was treated badly by her husband, but after having her first child at 15, she had no choice but to stay with him.
Solace and support
Mary’s is one of more than 50,000 households this year that have registered as refugees in South Sudan. Many are headed by a single parent – typically an uneducated woman. From getting enough food to caring for sick children, the obstacles are huge. For now, home for Mary’s family is a bed in a warehouse in the United Nations-sponsored transit camp run by non-profit group InterSOS, who also provide three meals a day and a mosquito net.
During the day SOS Children provides welcome respite for Mary’s children in the camp’s child-friendly space. There, on the mat-covered mud floor of a tent, they can play, learn, dance and laugh, as children do. At night they return to the bed they all share. Then, when the mud clears, Mary will try to get her young children safely back to her family home, another 360 miles away.
Hilary Atkins is a freelance writer based in Kenya and has previously worked as the East Africa regional editor for SOS Children.
SOS Children in South Sudan
After operating for 35 years in the Sudan region, SOS Children is currently working closely with a wide range of agencies to deliver an emergency response.
While other agencies deliver physical security in the form of shelter and food, SOS Children offers emotional security through our in-depth expertise in the care of traumatised children. When families are undergoing the most severe disruption, giving children a chance to play, communicate, learn and build sustainable relationships is more important than ever.
Child-friendly spaces have been established at Juba and Malakal emergency rescue centres to offer psychosocial, recreational and learning support to children in our care. This is being extended to other affected children in the area. We have also established a service to retrace families and reintegrate children back home.
Helen Mboro, a government minister in South Sudan, has spoken about the critical importance of the work that SOS Children is doing to look after refugee children: “We need to keep children engaged so that they are not bored and running out on the streets while we are trying to sort them out.” In a volatile country with one of the worst health situations and highest maternal mortality rates in the world and where over 90% of people live on less than $1 a day, there is still a long way to go.
Find out more about SOS Children’s Villages in South Sudan.