South Sudan: hope and resilience in a time of conflict
2017 marked my fourth trip to the newest country in the world.
When I visited in 2012 and 2013, South Sudan was still full of hope after successfully becoming its own new nation.
Even then, life was difficult for many South Sudanese. But on my third visit, during the height of the conflict in 2014, it was tragic to see how quickly the country had changed.
The two towns I had lived in on my previous visits didn’t even exist anymore.
A feeling of apprehension
After these experiences, I left for South Sudan with a feeling of apprehension. I had lost a degree of hope when I was there in 2014 and wasn’t sure how I would feel seeing or hearing about the struggles again.
But somehow, even with all the violence, suffering and hunger, people still manage to smile when they see you, and still manage to show hope and resilience.
During my trip, I went to visit some communities in the Lakes Region, where Plan International UK has a project providing seeds and tools to food insecure families.
Through a project funded by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), we’re also providing dignity kits to adolescent girls – enabling them to go to school without missing a week every month, due to not having the right materials to manage their periods.
It’s clear how much these projects matter when you start speaking to girls in the community.
I met some girls who, with their families, had run from continuous conflict in their villages. Others have had to marry at a young age to ease the burden on their loved ones, or are going to school but already have a child at home to care for.
Many girls also face a daily struggle to eat, as there is not enough food available. Some only eat once a day, or even less than that.
Giving girls the chance to stay in school
In two of the region’s schools, girls explained to me the challenges they’ve been facing in their day-to-day lives.
“Because we didn’t have sanitary pads and they are too expensive to buy, we missed school for one week every month,” one girl told me.
“The teachers don’t understand this and we feel too uncomfortable to explain that we have our period, so they punish us for missing school.”
Another girl, Rebecca, explained that, because her parents couldn’t support the whole family due to the conflict and food insecurity in the region, she married at the age of 15. She now has a young baby.
Luckily her parents and husband still support her to go to school so she can continue her education, although she finds it difficult caring for a child at the same time.
She told me she was frightened when she found out she was pregnant, and breastfeeding was a challenge due to the food insecurity.
“Because I was so hungry most of the time, it was very hard to breastfeed but I continued for one year,” she says. “The baby is healthy and eating normal food now.”
Making impossible decisions, every day
I had never thought about the difficulties girls and women face during their period in conflict situations like these.
In the UK, we wouldn’t even consider not having sanitary pads or tampons, or how it would hinder our lives not having access to these essentials, let alone in such challenging and uncertain conditions.
Even after talking to and meeting people in South Sudan, it’s still hard to imagine what life must be like living in conflict or being food insecure – or the impossible decisions people have to make on a daily basis to ensure their family’s survival.
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