In the seven months since fighting started in South Sudan, more than 1.5 million people have fled their homes, with half feared to be children (UNOCHA).
Of those, 4,460 children have been identified as unaccompanied or separated from their families.
Why are so many children orphaned or separated in South Sudan?
It’s hard to imagine, but many children and families are literally running for their lives to reach the relative safety of a UN protection base. In the chaos and terror of people fleeing violence, it is easy for children to become separated from their family members. Some are separated because they simply cannot keep up and don’t know where their loved ones are. Sadly, many don’t even know if their loved ones are still alive.
Some children have witnessed horrific acts of violence against their parents, other family, or members of their community. In some instances, these acts could be as horrific and brutal as murder or rape.
It is difficult to imagine being a child fleeing for your life, running for long distances with no food or water. One teenager, Dennis, told one of our staff what it was like:
“We ran without stopping the whole time, day and night. If you stopped you died. But after running so long your heart is pounding and your legs are lead. Can you imagine? Your mouth is so dry you cannot even breathe or swallow. But there is no water and you can’t stop. Can you imagine? Then we had to cross a river. If you couldn’t swim you drowned. Many children were screaming and drowning but you have to keep swimming for your own survival. Can you imagine? Now we are here and look at us. We are eating leaves but we are dying. We have nothing here. Can you imagine?”
What happens to children who are separated from their parents?
Separated children experience severe distress: they may be extremely frightened being all alone, fearful for not only their safety, but the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones.
South Sudan’s collectivist culture is inclusive of orphaned children and after its long history of civil war is accustomed to making scarce resources stretch across communities. Nevertheless, the scale of the conflict and extremely scarce resources mean that the burden of caring for these children is proving too much for some families, already struggling to care for their own children. In many cases, the burden of care is almost entirely left to women. This includes protecting their children, and also fulfilling basic needs of food, water and shelter.
Separated children are vulnerable to many risks, including rape, sexual violence, abduction and recruitment into armed groups. Food security is dire for all affected people, but more so for separated children who are at real risk of severe malnutrition. Additionally children who have witnessed violence and been forced to flee for their lives can suffer severe emotional distress and find it difficult to cope with the situation they find themselves in.