JUBA — United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) officials said Tuesday that men in uniform are occupying at least 30 schools in five different states in South Sudan, interrupting the education of tens of thousands of children whose lives have already been disrupted by six months of conflict.
“We appeal to the Ministry of Defense and the leaders of the armed forces on both sides to make sure that they don’t use schools, hospitals or any places where we urgently need social services, that they leave these places alone, such that we can provide some support to the people,” Jonathan Veitch, the head of UNICEF in South Sudan, said.
Veitch said fighters from both the pro- and anti-government sides have taken over schools in Unity, Upper Nile, Lakes, Jonglei and Central Equatoria states, preventing around 120,000 children from using the schools for their intended purpose -- getting an education.
Even before the current conflict in South Sudan, education indicators in the young nation were among the world's worst, according to UNICEF.
"It is estimated that more than one million primary school aged children, mostly from rural areas, are not in school, while the few schools that do exist are not conducive to learning," the U.N. agency says on its website.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that seven in 10 children between the ages of six and 17 years of age had never set foot inside a classroom.
Colonel Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the South Sudan army, acknowledged that government forces are occupying some of the schools, but said they will soon leave.
But he said that, "In most of the cases... there are no children in the school" and the commanders "took the chance to use the school temporarily.”
An opposition spokesman did not respond to a request from South Sudan in Focus for comment.