By Simon Ingram
JUBA, South Sudan, 8 July, 2011 – The celebrations on the streets of Juba have already begun. School children waving flags and carrying banners have joined tribal warriors and soldiers in rehearsals for Saturday’s big celebrations. As South Sudan gets ready for becoming the world’s newest nation, the pride and excitement is visible on every face.
However, the thrill of independence cannot disguise the enormity of the challenges that confront South Sudan’s leaders as they attempt to build the infrastructure, skills and institutions needed to improve the situation of children in one of the world’s poorest nations.
A visit to Juba 1 Boys Primary School on the outskirts of South Sudan’s capital city offers a glimpse of the reality on which progress will have to be based. There were 736 boys enroled here last year, crammed into six classrooms. Narrow wooden benches are squeezed tightly between the grubby whitewashed walls. There is no electricity, nor any glass in the bare window frames.
But according to one of the teachers, James Paulo Jada, these unpromising surroundings have done nothing to dampen the boys’ enthusiasm for learning.
“You can find that the number of children attending school is increasing all the time,” said Mr. Jada. “Now we have more than three times the number of pupils we had before the peace agreement,” referring to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
This surge in school attendance – which increased the number of south Sudanese school children from some 343,000 to 1.6 million — was the result of support from UNICEF and partners.
Yet today, South Sudan’s education indicators remain among the worst in the world. Over one million primary school aged children still do not have access to basic education.
These stark facts have grim implications for hopes of accelerating South Sudan’s social and economic development in the years after independence.
When it comes to children’s health, the prospects are – if anything – even more daunting.
“South Sudan is one of the riskiest places on earth for a child to be born,” acknowledges UNICEF Director of South Sudan, Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque.
“Firstly the child is likely to be born in the hands of an untrained attendant, in a village hut, without the necessary conditions that would prevent any infection or any emergency that threatens the health of the newborn child.”
Grim prospects for children
The prospects for children who survive beyond infancy are no less daunting. Some 200,000 south Sudanese children are either severely or moderately malnourished. Less than three per cent of children receive the full protection of immunization. And malaria takes a heavy toll because only a quarter of children under the age of five sleep under bed-nets.
Just as alarmingly, South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places for a woman to bear a child: on average, 22 women of reproductive age die each day from complications with pregnancy and childbirth.
Dr. Luka Monoja, Health Minister of South Sudan, is frank in his assessment: “It’s our greatest nightmare,” he says.
The minister takes the condition of the nation’s hospitals as an example.
“Most of them are functioning but they are functioning in their pre-war dilapidated, physical state. And most of the health workers who volunteer to work there, they don’t have the necessary tools and skills.”
Ray of hope
The development of a five-year health sector development plan – now being finalized —offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Encouraging, too, are the expressions of support being received from a wide range of international partners.
It will take all of this and much more to turn the children of South Sudan’s desire for a better future into a reality.