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In South Sudan, less than half of children are in school and illiteracy rates are among the highest in the world. Even before the conflict, girls in South Sudan had a higher chance of dying during childbirth than finishing primary school. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Nairobi) March 30, 2015 — At the end of 2013, a political dispute between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and vice-President Riek Machar, following months of escalating tensions, reached the boiling point. Gun battles in the capital Juba quickly escalated to massacres and continued fighting elsewhere in the country, particularly in the eastern states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile.

More than one year later, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians have lost their lives and a further 12,000 children have been recruited into armed groups. Nearly two million South Sudanese people have been forcibly displaced with 500,000 in nearby countries and 1.5 million internally displaced. According to estimates by the World Food Programme, nearly another 300,000 people will have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda by the end of 2015. 

Amidst the chaos of war in South Sudan, suffering transcends borders, ethnic differences and age. Children are more severely affected, some growing up never having a secure home, others losing their parents and left to fend for themselves. Widows, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, and persons with disabilities all face the brunt of fighting and are at higher risk exploitation and trauma. 

As South Sudan enters a second year of renewed conflict, famine and further mass displacement looms. Comprehensive humanitarian aid, including educational opportunities and psychosocial support, is essential to protect lives today and build a more just tomorrow. 

Only coordinated action by humanitarian agencies, as well as faith and government leaders, both in and outside South Sudan, will bring about a peaceful and sustainable solution to the conflict and the protection of civilian populations in the interim. Jesuit Refugee Service urges those with influence to: 

  • prioritize diplomatic efforts and apply pressure on the South Sudanese government and armed groups to agree upon an immediate ceasefire and cooperate to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. Consultation opportunities must be created for the meaningful participation of representatives from communities engaged in humanitarian assistance across social and ethnic divides; 
  • protect those most at-risk of human rights abuses or severe suffering;
  • ensure both refugee and local communities are able to satisfy their fundamental needs, such as access to food, safe housing and education;
  • guarantee safe humanitarian corridors for the delivery of food and lifesaving materials; and
  • make a long-term investment in quality education, especially by prioritizing learning opportunities for girls.

Education in emergencies. Education is the one avenue that not only ensures knowledge is passed on to younger generations, but also instils a sense of normality for children and hope for communities. 

"Emergencies…do not go away overnight; they affect people for years and whole generations miss out on an education. This is dangerous. Ignorance breeds violence, which in turn becomes a vicious circle," said Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Adolfo Nicolás, at an event commemorating Universal Children's Day hosted by Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. 

This is especially true in South Sudan where less than half of children are in school and illiteracy rates are among the highest in the world. Even before the conflict, girls in South Sudan had a higher chance of dying during childbirth than finishing primary school, according to the latest strategic response plan of the South Sudan Education Cluster. 

"Only through education can generations of refugee children have the opportunities offered to others; to build communities of peace and respect for difference. But not just that, it is an opportunity to build the leaders of tomorrow, leaders who understand the terrible effects of violence and conflict and who have found the strength to overcome them," said Fr Adolfo Nicolás.

Legacy of impact. JRS has been providing education to displaced southern Sudanese for 23 years, accompanying refugees through the most difficult periods of war. 

Between 1992 and 2008, JRS offered education services to more than 30,000 students and trained more than 2,000 teachers in Adjumani, Uganda — one of the organization's largest interventions. In Kakuma refugee camp, JRS provided secondary scholarships to the brightest South Sudanese refugees. 

In 1997, JRS opened education projects in the South Sudanese counties of Nimule, Yei, Kajo Keji and Lobone bordering Uganda as refugees and internally displaced persons began returning home. These programmes served as many as 60,000 children a year and trained thousands of teachers. 

Many of those served throughout the region subsequently returned to their homes in South Sudan to make significant contributions to the country's education, banking, construction and administrative sectors. Some have contributed to the lasting peace in the few areas of the country unaffected by the current conflict. 

Present JRS intervention. After handing over responsibility for schools to the local church and authorities, JRS teams turned their attention toward assisting returnee refugees in Yambio county bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. The former refugees, after years of exile, returned to their war-torn homes to find little by way of infrastructure or educational opportunities, particularly for girls. Since January 2013, JRS has trained teachers, provided learning materials, renovated schools and extended education to girls through the provision of partial scholarships and sanitary materials. 

Similarly, in Kakuma refugee camp, JRS teams have extended their programmes in mental health in a section of the camp established for new arrivals, the majority of whom are South Sudanese. South Sudanese refugees also receive educational scholarships for primary, secondary, special needs and higher education. 

In September 2013, JRS expanded to Maban county (Upper Nile State) to provide education, psychosocial and pastoral services for both refugee and host communities. In the period surrounding independence, 125,000 people fled to Maban, escaping conflict in oil-rich Blue Nile state. Simultaneously, South Sudanese refugees from Upper Nile were returning home after years of exile in Sudan and Ethiopia. 

Looming insecuirty. As security deteriorated in 2014, the JRS team in Maban were forced to evacuate twice until being able to scale up its response in September. In Maban, JRS has chosen to invest primarily in those with the power to foster a generation of peace builders — teachers — through providing training for primary school instructors in the camp and local community and support to local schools. In addition, team members make home visits to individuals in extremely vulnerable circumstances and offer community counselling sessions, recreational activities for young people and vocational training, including adult literacy classes in English. 

Refugees from Sudan in Maban now constitute more than two-thirds of the local population; they find themselves caught between the war they fled at home and the one in their host society. The host community of recent returnees have come home to find a local government crippled to provide basic services — especially for education as most primary schools are not operational. 

According to the South Sudan Education Cluster, of the 1,200 schools in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, 70 percent have been closed since December 2013 leaving 1.7 million children without access to education. Nationwide, less than two percent of secondary school students are enrolled in school. 

Both populations live in severe poverty and struggle to access land for planting food or grazing animals, a problem that has been mirrored throughout the country as 2.5 million are classified as food insecure in South Sudan, according to Oxfam. 

"Basic services and opportunities for empowerment must be provided to both local and refugee communities if they are to overcome the adversities of war in solidarity. Our education programs — which include peace and reconciliation — offer long-term solutions and protection to these communities," said JRS Eastern Africa Director Deogratias Rwezaura S.J. 

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