Plan staff blog on our work with children across the world.
6 June 2014: It's a still hot afternoon as Blessing and I walk up the hill in Bomi County, Liberia.
”During the war I saw a man use a machete to slice a pregnant woman's belly open, see whether it was a boy or a girl.” Blessing stares ahead, chin lifted, a nerve in her cheek working. When she turns to look at me, her eyes are aflame. ”So yeah, I blame the war. No wonder things are like they are.”
Blessing* is 27, one of hundreds of young women and teenage girls from Bomi County who work as hopojos, or sex workers, to make a living. I'm here to make a film about them, but the minute we meet I know it's going to be one of those; the stories that get to you; the ones that leave you changed in a way that's inexplicable to anyone who wasn't there.
Orphaned and raped
Blessing and the other women were children or teenagers during the war. Most were orphaned; most were raped or gang-raped; all of them missed out on school and have no education or skills to speak of.
The generation of men who should be their husbands are so traumatised by what happened during those terrible years between 1999 and 2003, and so disempowered by the subsequent unemployment afflicting Liberia, that they no longer want responsibility, marriage or relationships. Instead they search for no-strings sex and leave the women to struggle along as single mothers.
Rape is so common that billboards line the highway out to Bomi, Rape is Not a Family Matter, and people have taken to wearing wristbands with the same slogan. The word that constantly comes to mind is broken, society, at least for these women, is broken.
In post-war Liberia, suffering is of a less tangible kind than the atrocities that happened during the conflict. Having to sleep with strangers for money every night after being raped or gang-raped when you were a girl is a singularly horrific form of torture. Yet the older women are strong and articulate about their predicament and understand not only the reasons for where they are today, but how this could be resolved for their daughters - education, they say, and trade. Teach them skills and they could leave the street and start businesses. Their biggest fear is that their daughters will be like them.
On the first day of filming we gather in a zinc roofed hut, all 23 of us in a circle around the room. It's hot and close and beads of sweat break out on our foreheads. The women sit in silence, watching me anxiously as Marc (my colleague and co-director) sets up the camera. They range from teenagers of 14 to young women of 30, and for a split second I'm not sure where to start. I'm surprised at how many of them have come. But when I ask a question, the silence breaks.
Their names are Kassa and Blessing, Carmen and Silver, Mary, Anna, Temba and Mamawa*. They tell me about the rapists, street customers or absent boyfriends who got them pregnant and the reasons why they work as sex workers to feed and try to send their children to school. They say that during the night, while they're with the men, they think of their children at home and the fact that if they don't get money, they won't eat. There's a palpable sense of emotion as the stories spill out and I get the impression that the women are desperate to confide what is happening. They are desperate for help.
We are broken
”We are broken,” says Kassa, ”and we have no pride as women.” When I ask them whether love exists between men and women they murmur collectively and shake their heads. ”Love?” says Blessing. ”What is love now? You try to get into it and then it hurts you. Just leave it alone.”
The women make around 75 Liberian dollars (one US dollar) per customer, meaning they have to sleep with several men to pay for food and rent the next day. Kassa began sex work when she was 10. After the war, when she used to hide in derelict buildings to avoid being raped, she would go to school in the day and on the street at night.
Now Mary, 15, does the same thing because her mother, another of this war generation, can't afford to provide for her. ”When I go into a room to sleep with a man, it makes me scared,” she trembles. ”I see myself as a child.” Only Blessing seems to throw a positive spin on what is happening. "One thing I like about myself, yes, I'm doing it, but then my children are in school," she shrugs.
When I get back to the hotel that night, I can't stop thinking about the women. The following day, I interview all the women one by one, not because we need all their stories, but because they are stories that need telling.
Silver, 30, wears a t-shirt that says 'Don't Hurt Me' in gold letters. She was gang-raped in the war by 4 men who tied her up and left her pregnant. Her face is impassive when I ask how it makes her feel to go on the street and sleep with strangers. ”It doesn't make me feel fine, but what to do?”
Girl Power Project
The worst thing is that at the end of the week we have to leave the women behind and go back to our lives. A kindly man called Alexander at Plan International has since brought the women together, to form a programme that combines skills training with a small business loan and group savings scheme. It will be part of Plan's overall Girl Power Project, which helps teenage girls and young women gain vocational skills so they can leave the streets and start businesses.
Showing their film, and it is their film, at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict** in London, chaired by William Hague and Angelina Jolie, is an important way to give them a voice, and show the world that just because a war ends, suffering doesn't.
I hope with all my heart that Ms Jolie and Mr Hague will listen hard to the women's stories, and that they will act upon what they hear.
The film will be screened at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict from 10-13 June. #TimeToAct #DaughtersOfWar
Read the full version of Jane’s blog on the Huffington Post**
Learn more about Plan’s work in Liberia
* All the women's names have been changed for their protection
** Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
May 2014: As Kumari Ghadei, 48, recalls her experience of Cyclone Phailin - the strongest storm to rip across India’s east coast in 14 years - tears flow down her face.
Listening to her story takes me straight back to that fateful night last October, when I was deployed the night before Cyclone Phailin made landfall to monitor its movement and impact.
Now, I am back in the affected areas as Plan International’s Cash Transfer in Emergencies Specialist, part of the global food and nutrition unit, to monitor the impact that our work is having on the community.
I get goosebumps as Kumari tells me about her family’s harrowing experience of when the cyclone hit the Ganjam District of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa).
They lost everything - their house, their food and their belongings. The 7-strong family was trapped in between the cyclonic wind and the floods, which led to the nearby Dhanei Dam overflowing. As a result, Kumari and her family had to take shelter in the nearby school for 4 days.
With Kumari’s husband unfit to work, she and her son had been the main sources of income - earning their living weaving bamboo baskets. With the bamboo all but destroyed, their income was gone and it would take time to weave more baskets. Where would they live? What would they eat? How would they survive?
I clearly remember the impact the cyclone had on the community, as I conducted my rapid-needs assessments immediately after the disaster. Wherever I turned, there was devastation. Adults and children were sombre and pale, as if they’d forgotten how to smile.
Given the impact of Cyclone Phailin, it was understandable.
The cyclone packed wind speeds of up to 220km per hour. Winds were followed by heavy rainfall, which caused flooding, displacing over 171,000 people, according to the government of Odisha.
According to Sphere India, 44 people lost their lives, while over 13 million people in over 18,000 villages were affected.
In the aftermath, the government was lauded due to its decision to evacuate over 1 million people who were at risk of the cyclone, a prime example of disaster preparedness.
The forgotten ones
The Dalits, or the untouchables as they were once known, were hit hard by the cyclone, with approximately 20% of the population in the affected areas impacted. Dalits are known to work as manual scavengers or daily-wage labourers and many do not own titles to their land, which means they are particularly vulnerable in disasters – yet often sidelined.
According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Dalits did not receive adequate assistance during the 2004 tsunami, the 2008 Kosi floods in India and Nepal or the 2010 floods in Pakistan, and despite affirmative government measures in South Asia, widespread violations of the fundamental rights of Dalits remain common.
At Plan International, our priority in disaster situations is to ensure children, women and vulnerable communities receive the aid they need and our response always aims to be inclusive.
Dalits are vulnerable, as most live in the peripheral areas and are exposed to natural disasters. Often, they do not even have appropriate access to information, meaning they can miss out on early warning signals in an impending disaster situation.
For Kumari, a Dalit, she and her family received mixed early warning information. She was aware of the risks of the cyclone, but not of the floods.
Emergency cash transfers
Building from previous experience of working with disaster-affected communities, Plan decided to distribute emergency cash transfers following Cyclone Phailin. According to Plan’s assessments, Kumari and her family were in desperate need and received an Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) of INR 7,500 (€100) via bank transfer.
“This was a timely support otherwise we would have struggled for our survival since we had lost everything including all our belongings, from utensils to the roof over our head,” says Kumari.
As her tears fade into a hopeful smile, Kumari says: “The cash transfer gave me the choice and flexibility on spending the money I received. I used it to purchase food materials worth INR 3,000, bamboo for INR 1,500 and I repaid debt amounting to INR 3,000.”
By purchasing enough food to survive the aftermath of the disaster, Kumari and her son were able to work hard and produce bamboo baskets to sell. Now they earn INR 6,000 per month, a sufficient amount for their family’s needs.
The cash transfer also allowed Kumari to start rebuilding her house and she hopes to receive support from the government-supported shelter scheme ‘Indira Awas Yojana’, facilitated by Plan and its partner CYSD (Centre for Youth and Social Development).
Kumari is very grateful for the bank transfer and now her future looks much brighter, while the conditions stipulated have also helped her community.
“The soft condition of ‘no one should utilise this money for drinking liquor. If this happens, the money will be taken back’ is good, and it means the men have stopped drinking since the cash transfer to ensure food security,” says Kumari. “We women are extremely happy about it and are leading a peaceful life.”
Plan has also provided UCT to 21 other women in the village and they have used their money wisely.
Having revisited the affected communities, I can see a positive change. There are still needs unmet, but these cash transfers have provided a lifeline for many people.
For me, I cannot stop saying, “Our small bit of work has transformed sombre faces into smiles”.
This project is funded by the Humanitarian Aid Department of European Commission with Action Aid as consortia lead and Plan International in India as consortia partner, in addition to ADRA, Christian Aid and Oxfam.
Visit Plan India’s website
28 May 2014: According to the World Food Programme* (WFP), there are 842 million undernourished people in the world today and malnutrition is the biggest risk to health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. That means 1 in 8 people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.
The good news is that hunger and malnutrition can be stopped. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone and no scientific breakthroughs are needed. Today’s knowledge, tools and policies, combined with political will, can solve the problem.
As we pose to reflect this World Hunger Day*, my colleagues in Plan’s Food Assistance and Nutrition Unit (FANU) are driven by the Zero Hunger Challenge* and awake to the fact that “eliminating hunger is a moral imperative that the world cannot afford to ignore and that it’s not just the right thing to do, but that it is also the smart thing to do”, as stated by Ertharin Cousin, WFP Executive Director.
Plan International has made significant contributions on the frontline, helping thousands of individuals and families tackle hunger in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe since 2005.
During 2011 and 2012 food emergencies in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region Plan supported children and communities with food resources.
Right now Plan is providing food assistance and nutrition interventions across all Plan regions, including countries such as the Philippines, South Sudan, Laos, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mali, Niger, India and Ethiopia.
In South Sudan, 5 months of fighting has seriously undermined food security. Aid agencies are warning of risks of a possible famine in 2014 if urgent supplies do not get through.
We set up Plan’s Food Assistance and Nutrition Unit almost 1 year ago to improve the quality, reliability and profile of our food assistance portfolio. The unit brings together expertise on food distributions, nutrition and cash programming. The team, supported by specialist consultants, has been able to provide specialist support to the countries that need it while building Plan’s profile with the UN and donors.
FANU strengthens Plan’s ability to manage malnutrition and food crisis prior to disaster, in emergency response and during recovery phase.
What does this mean in practice? Key activities FANU works on include cash and vouchers programming, therapeutic and supplementary feeding, general food distributions, food for assets and school feeding. All different ways of providing food assistance.
A busy year
The FANU team has had a busy year supporting Plan’s programmes across the globe, including food assistance projects in Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Mali. With team members being based in India, Kenya, USA and UK, the first face-to-face team meeting occurred when all were deployed for the Typhoon Haiyan response.
As we work with others as members of the global Food Security Cluster and also at the global Nutrition Cluster, Plan is today well placed to address the causes, consequences and dynamics of food crisis and malnutrition.
Together we are saving lives and building resilience amongst children and communities.
In pictures: How Plan tackles hunger
Cambodia: Students are trained on nutrition and how to develop vegetable gardens
Niger: A boy waters crops in the school garden funded by Plan
Burkina Faso: Children receive lunch at school
Senegal: A malnourished child being fed at a Plan-supported maternity centre
Philippines: Lina and her friends take part in Plan's cash-for-work scheme, which provides food assistance
South Sudan: Children wait to receive their ration cards and food during a distribution
Philippines: Mother feeds her son with food received from Plan during distribution in Eastern Samar
Find out more about Plan’s Food and Nutrition work.
Support the South Sudan crisis appeal.
*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
May 2014: When donor governments meet in Oslo on 20th May to discuss funding for South Sudan, it is imperative that they put money, peace and children at the heart of their discussions. At stake are the lives of almost half the population in South Sudan. In real terms, we are talking about close to 5 million people. It is equivalent of the entire population of Norway. People are at risk of a potential famine, many of them are women, and children - they are hungry, malnourished and homeless. Donors have an opportunity pull the red card (read chequebook) to stop the slide - and they need to act now.
History and future of a catastrophe fore told:
During my recent visit to South Sudan to support Plan International’s relief efforts, I met two young girls aged 9 and 4 in Awerial, in the Lakes state*. With fear in her eyes, the elder sister recounted her horrifying tale to me - how she and her tiny sister witnessed the execution of their own parents by armed men in their hometown in Jonglei. The sisters joined the wave of people fleeing the violence, many of them wounded and bleeding from the violence and gun battles that have engulfed the country since a failed attempted coup in December 2013. The media has reported “thousands of deaths”.
Since December, human suffering has reached catastrophic proportions - 1.3 million people have been forced out from their homes, with close to 300,000 refugees pouring into neighbouring countries. Thousands of children like the two sisters I met have been trapped in the crossfire; displaced and separated from their families and friends, living an unending nightmare.
Peace is a priority- make it non-negotiable:
No words can truly capture the suffering and trauma. For children who have been orphaned or separated from their families and friends and forced from their homes, schools and child hood, there is no future without peace. Education is critical for children and youth impacted by conflict. Many children have witnessed or experienced traumatising events and education and emotional first aid can help to heal. Thousands of children in South Sudan are currently not able to attend school as many schools remain closed while others are occupied by armed forces or displaced people.
Olaf Thommessen, my colleague from Plan Norway, has recently written about the children forced to leave their childhood* . Norway, the venue for the donor conference on South Sudan which is taking place on 20th May, has an impressive track record for contributing to mediations and negotiations and ‘oiling and witnessing’ peace processes in many a conflict zones. I hope the ambience also influences the outcomes to make peace non-negotiable.
Money matters- good intention alone is not just good enough:
Good intentions to help the poor and hungry are noble thoughts, but to make that happen and for everything else, you need money. The UN requests US$ 1.27 billion to provide life saving and sustaining relief in South Sudan. The donors have so far pledged only 42.5% . This gap in funding is impacting the lives of millions of people and failing a whole generation of children. Donors, while they meet in Norway next week, have an opportunity. The decisions they make will impact millions of lives and help the aid agencies which are battling the crisis.
Well, there is lot of money in the world - except that the world gets its priorities wrong. Global arms expenditure in 2013 was US$ 1.7 trillion (i.e. over 1,747 billion dollars). A fraction of that could buy enough food and education for those in need. Peace always doesn’t flow from the barrel of a gun.
Bread and books before bullets:
This week, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and ‘rebel’ leader Riek Machar agreed a peace pact – the second attempt of its kind in recent months. This is a ray of hope. Peace is a precondition for addressing life saving needs and stopping the cycle of violence and trauma. Peace is key to prioritising bread and books before bullets.
Food shortages and malnutrition levels are extremely high with one third of the population now experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity. The country is heading for the worst food crisis in recent times and the UN warns that some 50,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition. Aid agencies warn the risk of a famine in the coming months.
Put children at the centre of the discussions:
Children are vulnerable. In addition to short term life saving and long term resilience building measures, for thousands of children who are hit hard by this complex crisis, education and protection are key. Donors must ensure that the needs of children, especially education and protection, are priorities.
Why is there a bias against children and their needs when funding decisions are made? In 2014, of the total allocation for humanitarian work from the UN’s central emergency response fund, only 1.51% has been allocated for education. Protection and human rights related work attracted 7.04%. It is time to change this. We shouldn’t fail the children of South Sudan. In order to ensure that relief is given with dignity, it should meet global standards such Sphere standards*.
Who said children don’t vote? Well, they don’t cast their votes by standing in long lines and on ballet papers, but they cast their votes from under-funded relief camps and feeding centres and ill equipped schools and hospitals. Every hungry child is a vote of non-confidence on humanity. I hope the donors don’t ignore them.
Support Plan's South Sudan crisis appeal.
* Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites.
Millions of children can only dream of going to school. The world must step up and put education top of the global agenda, blogs UN and Plan UK youth representative David Crone.
May 2014: When it comes to addressing the many complex problems in developing countries, and ending injustice, there is no silver bullet or magical solution - but giving children access to at least 9 years of quality education is about as close as we can get.
Education equips young people with the knowledge and skills they need to broaden their horizons, pursue their ambitions and fulfil their potential. It better positions them to understand and protect their human rights, and to acknowledge and engage in the political system of their country as active and responsible citizens.
With an education, individuals are enabled to live happier, healthier and longer lives, as are their children – they can take control over their own destinies, contribute to decisions affecting their community and pull themselves and their country out of poverty.
But education is not just a powerful and effective solution to extreme poverty, making it the smart thing for governments to invest in; it’s a fundamental human right, making it right and fair for decision-makers to prioritise.
Yet despite this education continues to be denied the attention it deserves, financially and politically, at the global level. In 2000, world leaders promised that, by 2015, every child would be in school – yet over the last few years, progress has slowed, stalled, and in some countries the number in school has recently declined. If we continue the way we’re headed, it won’t be for another 70 years until every child is in school.
But getting kids into school isn’t the only problem – there’s a whole host of other challenges, like ensuring that they don’t drop out, that they receive quality education from qualified teachers, that they are actually making measurable progress and gaining skills, and that the most frequently marginalised and isolated children – and girls in particular – aren’t excluded.
Global education opportunity
In June, government representatives and education ministers from all over the world will gather in Brussels to announce how much money they will donate to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in order to fund education projects the world over. GPE is the world’s funding pot for education: properly funded by donor governments, it has the unique ability to ensure school places for children from Nigeria to Pakistan.
The UK government has been one of the biggest donors – and Plan is working flat out to ensure that this remains the case.
The power of hope
I am often asked why I, a British young man from North East England, am at all interested in the rights of children, and particularly girls, who come from backgrounds so different and from countries so far from my own.
The answer is simple. Every day, I interact with, hear of or advocate alongside people who have nothing, or have lost everything, but their hope. Crippled so severely by poverty, burdened by illiteracy and hindered by inequality in their societies, the hope in their voices is tangible. The hope of parents that their children might someday make something of themselves. The hope of young people that they might not be resigned to a life of poverty, that they will be the generation to make their nation prosperous. The hope of girls that they will grow up to something more than just a bride or a housewife. The hope of displaced children that war and conflict will not shatter their future in the same way it has shaken their country.
Time to step up
Young people are the ones who have to live in the future that world leaders are forging today. We will feel the long-term impacts and the legacy of the decisions that are taken now. It’s in our own interest, but it’s also part of our social responsibility as global citizens, to care about and to campaign for quality, universal education – for our fellow young people around the world who might never have the chances we have.
By accident of my place of birth I have been afforded rights and privileges and opportunities of which millions of children around the world could only dream. I’m fortunate and thankful to have them, but I am dismayed that in 2014 so many millions are still denied them, and I am conscious that I could have easily been one of those children. And you could have been one, too.
If you ponder on that thought for just a few seconds, I’m sure you’ll agree that, for the sake of just a few clicks from this page, it’s worth adding your voice to the global rallying cry for education. The future depends upon what we do today. And so today, the world must step up and place education at the top of the global agenda. Together, we can make that happen.
Sign this global petition to help make sure all children have access to basic education
Show your support for girls’ education: raise your hand now
Join Plan’s Because I am a Girl campaign for girls’ education
8 May 2014: Six months ago today, super Typhoon Haiyan (named “Yolanda” in the Philippines), the strongest typhoon believed to have ever made landfall, slammed into the Philippines. 14.1 million people were affected, with 4.1 million displaced, and losses and damages estimated at 14 billion dollars. Over 6,200 people died, and thousands more are still missing.
The world watched as Haiyan tallied horrifying statistics on the extent of devastation and destruction. Typhoon Haiyan struck as the Philippines, the most storm-exposed country on Earth, was still reeling from Typhoon Bopha and from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, which hit a month before Haiyan.
Poor hit hardest
Even now, as we take stock of the incredible work that has been done in a very short time, the 2014 Pacific cyclone season is just beginning. An average 20 typhoons slam into the Philippines every year. If a major storm were to hit the affected areas now, we could be looking at a potentially much worse humanitarian situation.
The experience of Haiyan sealed what many development organisations have been asserting for years: that disaster risk is most real to the poor, marginalised and vulnerable sectors of society, including women and children.
These are the people who do not have the social safety nets and capacities to protect themselves and recover, and are therefore left to suffer the most during disasters and face the higher risk of losing whatever is left of their belongings – if not losing their own lives. In Haiyan’s story, this translates to 2.6 million of the poorest households, and 5.9 million children.
In the crucial weeks after the typhoon and leading to the 6 month mark, Plan International quickly mobilised resources around the world, channeling funds and donations to the Philippines to contribute to the response and recovery process.
The appeal has now generated more than 50 million dollars, one of the biggest contributions from children-based international non-governmental organisations to date.
Plan Philippines is supporting in 7 sectoral areas – protection and gender-based violence; education; health; nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene; early recovery, livelihood and agriculture; and shelter – including engagement in interagency clusters and partnerships.
To date, 143,171 households spread across 43 disaster-affected municipalities have already benefitted from Plan’s response and relief efforts – much higher than the planned coverage of just 22 municipalities and 75,000 households.
The extraordinary resilience of the Filipino people matched the world’s outpouring of support. On Plan Philippines’ end, harnessing our partner-communities’ creative energies and supporting them throughout the process of self-recovery became the focus of our response and recovery work.
Putting children at the centre
Essential in the recovery process is the inclusion of children: to see them not just as end-receivers, but as active participants in the process itself. Through our strategic alliances with other humanitarian organisations, we have organised a children’s multiple initial rapid assessment and other forums involving children, which leverage their meaningful participation as a way of informing disaster risk reduction planning processes, assessment of response plans, and post-disaster needs assessments.
We are also engaging children in more creative ways, providing them with the right tools and channels for communicating what they hold as important, and therefore the opportunity for them to become agents of change.
Building back better, safer
The experience of Haiyan brought many of us development and humanitarian actors face-to-face with the reality of a “new normal” now unfolding before us, redefining what used to be a business as usual approach to development.
Now, there is only the standard of quality projects with long-lasting benefits that help communities prepare for future challenges – where the only way to build, is to build back better and safer.
In the first few weeks after Haiyan, I have met farmers not begging for food, but for seeds to be sown so they can grow and harvest their own food. I have met children, who, despite experiencing severe trauma and loss, have by some miracle kept the twinkle of hope in their eyes.
I am always amazed by the positive attitudes of children in disasters and by how they cope with very difficult circumstances. Seeing children living in dangerous circumstances like these breaks my heart. But it also strengthens my resolve and that of my teams to persist in our work to contribute to a better quality of life.
The process of rebuilding will take years, and more medium-term investments in livelihoods, education and disaster risk reduction remains to be done. But what keeps us moving forward is that unbreakable Filipino spirit; that unique brand of resilience now known the world over.
Haiyan taught us many lessons in channeling our development and humanitarian efforts in more sustainable ways. Our beneficiaries taught us something much more invaluable – that in the face of a disaster, we do not give up hope, because, life, after all, goes on.
Read about Plan’s Typhoon Haiyan response
24 April 2014: South Sudan is currently facing its most severe crisis since its birth 2 years ago. In fact, what we are seeing now is a crisis within a crisis. UN agencies have recently warned that almost 4 million people are facing severe food shortages, with the possibility of famine occurring in the coming months now looking increasingly likely.
In response to this, Plan International is currently scaling up its response to provide food assistance to the most vulnerable and treat the significant rise in severe malnutrition in children aged under 5.
Half of population food insecure
While South Sudan experiences cyclical food insecurity, with many each year relying on food aid to survive the lean months, this year a combination of deadly violence, displacement and disruption of trade have left over half the country’s population food insecure.
Indeed, the current cycle of violence has not abated and despite attempts to broker peace deals, children and their families are still fleeing their homes in large numbers.
Too late for crops
The many thousands who were displaced from their land and farms as a result of the violence in 2013 and the beginning of this year, are yet to return to their homes and are still living in makeshift camps. While those who survived the violence and made it to the relative safety of camps have been receiving food aid, their chance to plant crops for their families has all but been lost.
As the rainy season approaches, those who normally would have planted in time for this important season are displaced, a figure which has been put currently at 800,000 people.
Indeed, it would likely be that these displaced and those communities left behind, would not only need aid in the form of seeds, but also tools and assistance with rehabilitating the already fragile agricultural land. Their livelihoods have been destroyed and it will take more than food aid to assist in rebuilding and strengthening their lives.
Race to provide food aid
For humanitarian agencies such as Plan International in South Sudan, the race is now on to provide food aid and assistance to displaced and conflict-affected communities before the start of the rainy season.
South Sudan is one of the logistically most difficult to access terrains in the Horn of Africa, with little in the way of tarmac roads or indeed landing strips for planes laden with aid.
We know already the damage the recent violence has done to families and in particular the trauma visited on children. The international community needs to act now to ensure aid reaches those in need, in addition to promoting peace and dialogue, in order to prevent this crisis turning into a disaster for these hundreds of thousands of families.
Support Plan’s South Sudan crisis appeal
Find out more about Plan’s work in South Sudan
Learn about Plan's global food and nutrition work
April 2014: Two groups and one-minded soldiers and rebels may start a war, but it is ordinary people, often children, who fight it.
In a group of 100 children, singing, playing and some crying, 2 girls stand out. Their names are Madiha*, 9, and Lina*, 4. It is not their unusual silence that catches my attention, but the way they frequently hug each other, often involuntarily.
Lina tightly grips her blue bunny rabbit, her eyes never leaving sight of it. Madiha hugs her tiny sister, keeping an eye on everyone and anything with a sense of alertness.
I meet Madiha and Lina at a child-friendly space, run by Plan International, in Awerial in the Lakes state of South Sudan. A child-friendly space is a lifeline for children in disasters and for those displaced and separated from friends and family, relief often comes in the form of a white canvas tent and a friendly blue logo of a child and sun - as long as the tent follows **.
Yet, the more I peer through the viewfinder of my camera, the more difficult the expression of affection between these 2 tiny children is to ignore.
To me, their silence is their story.
An “attempted” ‘coup d'état’ in December 2013, and an armed conflict in South Sudan have resulted in human suffering in catastrophic proportions. Media has reported “thousands of deaths”. The **, with some 190,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Thousands of children and women are trapped in the crossfire; displaced and separated from family and friends, victims are living an unending nightmare.
With fear in her eyes, Madiha recounts her tale. She saw armed men attacking everything, killing everyone in sight. Their hometown in Bor, Jonglei state, was fast turning into a flashpoint in the battle between government soldiers and armed rebels. The violence that started in mid December was spiralling out of control. While the media reported “thousands dead”, a mass exodus was under way.
Shot at close range
On 28 December, armed men seized Madiha’s mum and dad. Later that day, they were shot dead at close range. The young girl witnessed it all.
Madiha’s first instinct was to protect Lina. She grabbed Lina’s hands - her only possession left in life - and ran. As they made their escape, this 9-year-old child was transformed into a mother and father to her 4-year-old sister, leaving her childhood behind.
The sisters joined the wave of people heading to the River Nile - many of them wounded and bleeding from the violence and gun battle. The same night, Madiha and Lina managed to find a place in a boat ferrying conflict-affected people across the Nile. The pair landed in Awerial the next day, as Madiha recalls, “There were lot of people in the boat.”
Since then, they have been seeking refuge in Awerial.
As I look around the child-friendly space, there are over 100 children here who perhaps have a similar story - real moments when logic and reasoning are abandoned and the only instinct is survival.
New country, not so new problems
On 9 July, 2011, the world witnessed the birth of South Sudan, as over 99% of South Sudanese voted for independence in a historic referendum. The North-South civil war in Sudan killed more than 2.5 million people and displaced more than 5 million people. One country was the collective hope of all of its citizens.
I was in South Sudan shortly after the referendum to support Plan’s humanitarian work. I remember listening to a group of youngsters in a makeshift football ground in Juba, capital of the then ‘new-born’ country. Their optimism was infectious.
Fast forward to December, 2013, a political struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar became a full-blown crisis resulting in widespread violence, death and displacement. Today, it is having a catastrophic impact on this ‘new-born’ nation.
Act now, save lives
In mid February, the UN elevated the crisis in South Sudan to a Level 3 emergency, the highest in the UN system, and on par with the situation in Syria. Despite a peace agreement signed in late January, clashes and insecurity continue to constrain the humanitarian response.
Limited funding, lack of media attention and a looming food crisis make the situation a race against time for the 3.7 million people are in need of the life-sustaining support aid agencies provide.
Half of the affected people have not received any assistance until now. In addition to the need for food, water and shelter, children like Madiha and Lina need emotional care and support. If left unattended, it can leave lasting marks on the mind, which are often irreversible.
Crisis cries for attention
Aid agencies and the UN desperately need resources to provide life-supporting services. Funding gaps are limiting the ability of organisations to respond to humanitarian needs and thus forcing them to make difficult decisions about how to use limited aid money.
The ** for a period of 6 months. So far, donors have committed just 21%. Relief efforts cost money, while relief settings demand treating victims with dignity and ensuring standards, such as the Sphere Humanitarian Standards**.
Lack of media attention is one factor limiting fund mobilisation. Perhaps celebrities such as Hollywood star George Clooney, a ‘friend’ of South Sudan, may be able to provide a helping hand to push the plight of the people such as Madiha and Lina on to prime-time news. In disasters, better media attention is key to mobilising resources.
Peace and education
Refugees and humanitarian crises are not new for South Sudan and children such as Madiha and Lina are the ones who suffer the most. After all, children below the age of 18 account for over 53% of the people in South Sudan, so their need for education, protection and psychosocial care, must be central to relief and recovery efforts.
Yet, peace is a pre-condition for any relief and development work and education is a driver for peace. So what should happen first: peace or education? Both must happen simultaneously. I ask Madiha and Lina what they want to be when they grow up. Madiha says a doctor - is it a sign life will continue? Lina wants to be a teacher - perhaps a reminder education is a catalyst for lasting peace.
In conflict zones, time travels in just one direction. It takes humankind back, where lives and landscapes are altered forever, but nothing can diminish the hopes of these 2 children.
Support Plan's South Sudan crisis appeal
* Names have been changed
** Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
15 April 2014: The internet and information technology can widen access to learning, enhance the quality of education and empower men and women, girls and boys, with new skills and opportunities. But this does not happen by itself – it requires leadership, planning and action.
Fast, affordable broadband is increasingly becoming a basic need for a modern world, and it is our job to ensure that the world’s children have access to this important tool while also being informed about its dangers.
Children’s reality increasingly takes place online, which means opportunities but also risks - an issue up for discussion at the Global Child Forum 2014*. The possibilities to accelerate quality education, learning, health, play and development through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) are enormous. The online information flow and new services increases the need to strengthen children’s life skills, such as critical thinking, assessing information and protection against abuse.
Online gender gap
On average across the developing world, nearly 25% fewer women and girls are online than men and boys, and this gender gap climbs to above 40% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Why?
Discrimination, numbers, confidence, language, time, all contribute. If no action is taken, the internet gender gap will increase from 200 million women today who are not online, to 350 million in the next 3 years.
But rights and needs must be balanced and children, particularly girls, must also be protected from exploitation and harm via the internet.
79% don’t feel safe
In China in 2010, for example, 44% of children said they had been approached online by strangers. 79% of girls said they did not feel safe online and only about a third of the girls knew how to report a danger or feeling threatened or bad about something they had seen.
Every sector of society needs to be innovative and open-minded and urgently develop and scale up solutions and models that can advance children’s rights but also ensure that children are protected.
As more women and girls get online and discover new technology, they are at their most vulnerable. The responsibility lies with everyone, from governments to schools to non-governmental organisations, to inform them of the dangers and of ways to safeguard themselves against abuse and exploitation.
Bullying, violence and grooming
Technology is never free from societal influences – online platforms can be places of great opportunity, for children and young people to network, make new friends worldwide, learn and develop – but they can also replicate the risks where bullying, threats of violence, grooming and predatory behaviour become real.
So, should access to ICT be a basic human right? We at Plan believe it should, but this should go hand in hand with awareness of the dangers to children online, and efforts to minimise harm and create positive change.
Keeping children safe
All parties must confront, challenge and address the threats that children and teenagers face in our fast-changing world. Investment, both public and private, is so important in order to build children’s, particularly girls’ capabilities and assets so that they can better protect themselves.
Laws that are meant to protect young people must be enforced. Innovative solutions must be developed to protect young people.
New technology also places responsibility on businesses, care takers and the education system to respond and adapt to the reality children face online, and make sure we safeguard them from exploitation and harm as they benefit from and develop within the online world.
Read Plan’s Because I am a Girl: Digital and Urban Frontiers report, which looks at the prospects and perils girls face as ICT and city populations boom
Learn about Plan’s child protection work
* Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites
Early this morning I read the ‘Do-It’ section of the advocacy toolkit produced by Plan in partnership with the UN Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group and A World At School to support young people in their efforts to advocate for education. It was a great way to start the day! I was extremely impressed by the content and the youth-friendly manner in which it was presented.
When I started advocating for education I was a 15-year-old and had very little resources at my disposal. Consequently, my friends and I experienced tremendous challenges when we were planning to mobilise orphans in Burundi. Had we had this advocacy toolkit, I am sure it would have been much easier to achieve the impact we did!
Standing up for orphans’ education
Despite the numerous challenges we faced, we knew we had to help decrease the difficulties orphans faced in accessing education. My friends and I had a common understanding that education was the only way out of the poverty for us and thousands of children like us. We began to see a trend in orphans being expelled from schools as they could not pay their school fees.
After surviving the unspeakable issues of the civil war that prematurely orphaned us, the last thing we expected was to be forced out of school - our only hope for a better future, by those whose job was to help guarantee a better future for us.
The remote locations of many orphans’ schools exacerbated the unacceptable treatment we received since few of the local residents, let alone the students and teachers, were willing to challenge their headmasters or hold them accountable for their actions.
“Stubborn little kids”
Eventually, my friends and I figured we could not let the people in power write off our future. We decided to organise our fellow orphans to challenge our school and local authorities to guarantee our fundamental right to education.
In a culture where youth are considered too immature to make good judgment, our challenges ranged from lack of family support in some cases to discouraging actions from displeased authorities.
For example, one day a headmaster we urged to recall the orphans back to classes asked us to “stop behaving like stubborn little kids who failed to understand the realities of the world”. However, we refused to budge since it is these “realities” we were challenging!
President heeds our wish
Eventually, we mobilised orphans from the whole country and sought recognition from the Ministry of Interior. After long negotiations with members of the government of Burundi, the President heeded our wish and signed a decree allowing all orphans to go to school for free! I am proud that this, my story, is included in the new toolkit, so other young people can learn from my experience.
Having experienced severe challenges in my advocacy experience, it is encouraging to see organisations work together to support and strengthen young people’s advocacy work.
As a member of the UN GEFI YAG, I have outstanding support from Plan International who, for example, organised lobby meetings with the Burundian Embassies in both DC and New York, where I got to directly lobby people who can make decisions which put more children into school and learning.
When I read the ‘Do-It’ section of the advocacy toolkit, I liked the way it breaks down the strategies young people may follow to lead impactful advocacy campaigns. For example, it informs young people on how to influence policy and decision-makers. Ultimately, decision makers are the ones in position to effect change. Equipping youth with state-of-the-art knowledge on how to work with and influence them is key if we are to achieve outstanding results in youth-led advocacy campaigns.
To get the 57 million children across the world who are missing out on primary education into school and learning, more investment in advocacy tools will need to be made.
Furthermore, more support for grassroots campaigners will be needed from organisations and all individuals around the world. I hope others follow Plan’s leadership in empowering young people to change their lives and communities through education.
Read about and download Plan’s youth advocacy toolkit
Join Plan's global Because I am a Girl campaign for girls' education