‘We want the whole world to know’: Women and girls bear brunt of South Sudan’s extreme hunger crisis

It is women who ‘eat last and least’

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Friday 14 May 2021 12:12
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<p>Mary* is a 22-year-old mother-of-four who lives in Pibor</p>

Mary* is a 22-year-old mother-of-four who lives in Pibor

Pibor is at the epicentre of the harrowing hunger crisis currently engulfing South Sudan. NGO workers warn the region is currently in the grips of the most extreme hunger crisis in “living memory”.

But while the famine plaguing Pibor is an issue which ruins and ultimately ends the lives of both men and women, studies have found it is often women who eat “last and least” in nations grappling with war or hunger. To put this into context, some 60 per cent of the 690 million people currently starving or enduring food insecurity around the world are women and girls.

In Pibor, the majority of families are now struggling to subsist on just one meal each day, while others have been forced to make do without any food for whole days at a time. There are even reports of hunger-related deaths.

“Women and girls are greatly affected by this issue,” Richard Orengo, Plan International’s programme director for South Sudan, tells The Independent. “Cultural norms mean women and girls are the last ones to be fed. This means if food is finished, they don’t get any food, despite being the people who went to collect the food and cook the food. Houses are supposed to have one meal a day but this is worse for women.”

Mr Orengo says “heads of households” such as fathers or sons are prioritised - adding it is traditional for women to do household chores and for men not to touch food unless they are eating it.

“Women will collect food and carry it long distances back to the home, which exposes them to risk of sexual exploitation,” Mr Orengo, who helps with food distribution, adds. “If households have very little food, then they have to dispose of one member of the household, which can lead to an early and forced marriage for the girl, which is terrible.”

He says it is “frustrating” some people have to go hungry while there is a “surplus of food rotting” around the world. Global cuts to aid programmes mean there is less food to give a household and the hunger crisis in Pibor is due to get worse because of flooding in the next month or so, he added.

Mr Orengo, who has been an NGO worker for 15 years, says the mental health of his colleagues is under strain and he is struggling due to not being able to go home to see his wife and four children in Kenya for the last four months.

“We want the whole world to know about the situation in South Sudan,” he adds. “It is sometimes disappointing - we would expect the whole world to worry and care.”

Some 1,032 children under the age of five in Pibor county were treated for moderate acute malnutrition by Plan International in March.

Back in December, international food security experts said Pibor County was likely to be in the grips of a famine, as well as noting flooding and bloody conflict had blocked people from being able to get aid.

South Sudan, one of the most impoverished nations in the world, has been consumed by a vicious civil war which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands in recent years. A third of the country, which amounts to over four million individuals, were displaced from their homes due to the conflict.

Pibor, in the east of the country, has been especially plagued by bloody and deadly conflict between tribes, while the hunger crisis is also particularly dire in the region. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which keeps tabs on food security, estimates a whopping 60 per cent of South Sudan’s population – translating to some 7.2 million people - will be enduring acute food insecurity between April and July this year and requires desperate help.

“When the floods came, most of my crop was washed away. The little I harvested was taken away when the attackers hit our village the first time. I ran to save my children and so could not save any grain”

Mary

While it is estimated almost 800,000 people in Jonglei State, where Pibor is located, will be classed as “people in emergency” or “people in catastrophe” during this period.

Mary*, a 22-year-old mother-of-four who lives in Pibor, says it is now routine to ration the minuscule amounts of food she has for as long as she can.

Her family have had to escape their home a slew of times in the last year – routinely spending days trekking to find a safe spot to stop – due to the relentless combination of flooding and attacks.

“Due to the distances we had to cover, we could not carry any valuable items including food as this would weigh us down,” Mary adds. “Before the 2019 floods, I had cultivated and hoped to harvest enough grain. Unfortunately, when the floods came, most of my crop was washed away. The little I harvested was taken away when the attackers hit our village the first time. I ran to save my children and so could not save any grain.”

Mary and her children are forced to subsist on any spare food their neighbours and relatives are able to part with. Her second child was given a supplement called CSB++ to help combat his malnutrition, which the whole family have wound up eating due to the grave dearth of food available.

“The only food I have in the house is these three cups of sorghum (a grain),” Mary says. “I plan to cook them a cup a day so that at least we can eat for a little longer. If we must eat for the whole week, then it means we shall divide the three cups into smaller quantities for every day or skip meals.”

Hunger crises also have a disproportionate burden on women and girls due to parents forcing their daughters into marriage in a bid to stop having to feed them and also as means to raise extra cash.

Plan International notes drawn-out conflict in the country has resulted in tribes abducting women and children from opposing groups in recent years as a way to seek revenge. While abducted women and children are often married off for cows.

Veronica*, who grew up in a village in Pibor, was only 18-years-old when she was kidnapped by armed men back in 2019 before being transported to the home of her abductor.

“I had gone with my friend to fetch firewood when we saw men running towards us and immediately wrestled us to the ground and pointed their guns at our heads,” she recalls. “We were stuck stiff to the ground as they searched everywhere in case anyone was watching. We were then marched along on a three-day-long journey.”

She said she felt massively homesick while living with her kidnapper and “could not hold back tears” every time she remembered her loved ones would be speculating about where she was.

“I contemplated an escape but I did not dare do it because I didn’t know the jungles through which we travelled,” Veronica adds. “I feared I would get lost in the middle of the jungle and face even worse threats of death. After nearly a year, my abductor arranged for his friend to marry me and pay cows in return. I now have a child who is nearly two-years-old.”

Veronica has now been fortunate enough to be rescued from her kidnapper by the local chief but has yet to be returned to her own family. Her child has stayed with her father because a child is deemed kin of their father in most communities in the country.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

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