JUBA — Children displaced in South Sudan by four months of fighting not only face a greater risk of disease and malnutrition, but their education is also suffering, analysts and NGOs say.
“The environment in which these children are living is deplorable," said Zachariah Diing Akol, a director at the Sudd Institute think tank, referring to U.N. compounds that have been turned into camps for tens of thousands of internally displaced South Sudanese, most of whom are women and children.
"Shelters are not available in some places ... tents are what these children get. And some are sometimes directly under the trees. That exposes them to diseases,” Akol said.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned last week that as many as 50,000 children in South Sudan could die of hunger before the end of the year unless more aid is provided.
Humanitarian leaders from the United States, United Nations and European Union said at the weekend that they are already seeing signs of malnutrition among children in South Sudan, and called for aid to be stepped up immediately.
Education taking a back seat
Akol said even if children do not die of hunger, disease or as a direct consequence of combat, they are still missing out on educational opportunities.
“Education has to take a backseat, unfortunately," Akol said.
"To stop blood and ... lives being taken, I think takes precedence. But definitely children will continue to be out of school if the war continues,” he said.
UNICEF spokeswoman Doune Porter said the U.N. agency is doing what it can to provide as many children as possible with an uninterrupted education.
“To be able to introduce some kind of normality, some kind of routine by going to school is very important," Porter said.
"And one of the things that we are doing in some areas we can reach is to bring in tents – what we call 'temporary learning spaces' – and we are working with teachers so that some basic education can be continued for children,” she said.
More than 170 temporary learning spaces have been set up so far, Porter said.
Before conflict, adult literacy at 27 percent
Before the current conflict broke out on Dec. 15, only slightly more than one in four South Sudanese adults could read and write, and seven in 10 children between the ages of six and 17 years of age had never set foot inside a classroom, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Only one in 10 children completed primary school, according to the local UNICEF office.
In January, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan hosted school-leaving exams for people aged 14 and older, who had sought refuge inside the U.N. compound in Juba.
Four hundred people took the week-long exams, which were originally supposed to begin on Dec. 16.
Porter and Akol acknowledged that ongoing fighting limits their ability to respond to the needs -- including providing them with an education -- of children across the country.
Akol echoed a call by the international community and aid agencies for a cessation of hostilities based on an agreement signed in January. They appealed for government and opposition forces to give humanitarian workers unimpeded access to people in need in South Sudan. But the agreement has been violated many times since then.
But, Akol said, the only way to avoid further suffering and death and to ensure children's schooling is not interrupted for too long, is for both sides in the conflict to stop fighting.