As we walk through the maze of tents that make up the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Bor, South Sudan, a group of children come bounding around the corner and come to a stop in front of us. Sarah, my guide in the camp, immediately shows the children one of the plastic signs she is carrying, illustrated with simple pictures of children washing their hands and begins to ask them questions. Once she has explained the importance of handwashing to the children, she begins to talk to the group of mothers who are gathering in the nearby shade.
In times of crisis, it is often women and children who suffer most. When communities are displaced by conflict, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual harm as well as exploitation. Many have already suffered terrible violence as they fled their homes; girls, pregnant women and those with small children are uniquely vulnerable. Even when they reach the relative safety of refugee or displacement camps, they still face many critical challenges.
Ongoing violence in South Sudan has displaced almost 1.9 million people inside the country, most of them women and children, while more than 1.6 million people have fled to neighbouring countries in search of safety.
Walking through the POC site with Sarah, it’s easy to see the challenges that women and girls face. The site is home to more than 3,500 people, mainly women and children, who fled the violence that first erupted in South Sudan in 2013.
The women here are under extraordinary pressure. Living in small tents, they need to look after their children, feed their families, keep them clean and try to retain a sense of normality and dignity.
Many of the women living in the camp have lost the men in their lives to the conflict – the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers who traditionally help provide for the families. This means many women are now joining together to take on new roles and create support networks.
Sarah has been living in the POC for more than three years with the two youngest of her six children. She is also a member of the camp’s water and sanitation committee, making sure that the views of women and girls are heard and acted upon by the organisations providing support in the camp. Water and sanitation issues are a key challenge, and Sarah is a busy woman.
It is women who are hit hardest by poor access to sanitation and water, she says. Washing clothes for large families in a displacement camp can become an impossible task. Water is often at a premium, and long queues at the water points are common. There are not always separate latrines for women and girls, which increases the risk of sexual violence. Even when they are in place, they are frequently poorly lit, increasing night-time risk.
Each morning Sarah goes out and speaks to families in the camp, listening to their issues, and offering advice and guidance on topics such as how to prevent cholera.
“When we first arrived here, the situation was so bad – in the first few months more than 80 children died because of the poor hygiene,” she says. “So UNICEF selected a number of us to be trained as hygiene and sanitation workers.”
Working with community leaders like Sarah, UNICEF, with the support of donors such as USAID, are improving access to water and sanitation facilities, installing water taps, building new latrines, with separate facilities for men and women, and ensuring that they are well lit using solar street lamps.
Providing water and sanitation also benefits other areas of UNICEF’s work in the site. The lack of safe, separate and private sanitation and washing facilities in schools is one of the main factors preventing girls from attending classes, particularly when they are menstruating. The school in the Bor PoC, now has separate latrines for the boys and girls, and there are plans for a new water point, so students won’t have to go home for a drink if they get thirsty during the long, hot day.
“The full participation of women and girls in the water and sanitation programming is really the key to its success,” says Lillian Okwirry, UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in South Sudan. “By directly involving women in the planning and management of the programmes, we can begin to address the inequities suffered by women and girls in accessing these services.”
The impending rainy season brings extra challenges. Flooding can quickly turn the dusty streets into muddy swamps, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases. Elevating latrines helps to keep sewage from mixing with the floodwater.
Central to the humanitarian response for those living in PoCs, not only in Bor but also in far larger sites in Bentiu and Juba, should be empowering women who have lost almost everything. As we walk back to her tent, Sarah tells me why she believes it’s so important that organisations like UNICEF are working with the women community leaders.
“When the women here feel like they are participating, and their voices are being heard it gives them hope that things will continue to improve. Women are the backbone of this country. We’re responsible for the next generation – boys and girls – so our future is the future of South Sudan.”
Joe English is a Communications Specialist based at UNICEF headquarters in New York.