Op-ed for the Oslo Donor Conference

South Sudan Conflict: Op-ed for the Oslo Donor Conference

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Robert Glasser, CARE International Secretary General

Three years ago, the world witnessed the birth of a new nation, as the people of South Sudan united in eager, hopeful anticipation. People sang independence songs, and a huge clock in the centre of Juba, the capital, counted down the days. Today, the picture is quite different. The head of our South Sudan office describes a nightmarish, “soul-destroying” situation: never in her 20-year career has she had to sit by and watch people near starvation – with not enough funding to do anything about it.

Since conflict broke out in December between the government and opposition, we have seen a wave of violent attacks, rapes and fighting that have plunged the fledgling country into chaos and led its people to the brink of a catastrophic food crisis.

Again, the world is watching – but we aren’t doing enough to stop what is already a humanitarian catastrophe, which will become much worse unless immediate action is taken. There is still time to prevent the worst from happening, and on May 20, we have a clear opportunity to act, as the international community meets at a donor conference in Oslo, Norway to decide how to respond.

There are two clear steps that need to be taken immediately: an end to the violence and lasting political solution to the crisis; and up-front funding commitments from the international community to meet the immense humanitarian needs in South Sudan. USD1.27 billion is needed now to prevent the worst, but barely more than a third of that has been raised. If the total funding isn’t provided now, the ultimate cost of the emergency response will only grow. We know from experience that prevention costs much less than a full-blown emergency response.

The human cost of inaction is stark. More than 900,000 people have fled their homes within South Sudan, finding shelter in the bush or in the perceived safety of United Nations compounds across the country. Nearly 300,000 others have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Thousands have been killed, and the UN has recently said there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed.

Heavy fighting and the onset of the rainy season have cut off the few existing roads, leaving tens of thousands without any assistance at all. Planes full of aid and humanitarian workers cannot land because airstrips are under water or blocked by fighting. Worse, the armed conflict raging across half the country prevented farmers from planting seeds in time for the planting season, and now not enough crops will grow to feed the country in the coming year, leading to warnings from the UN of a potential famine in several states.

If the world does not act, if the conflict does not end, more people will die – from violence, or from hunger. And an insidious, lesser-known evil will grow; sexual violence and exploitation. Research being released by CARE to coincide with the Oslo conference shows that the escalation in the conflict has been accompanied by a rise in sexual violence, largely against women and girls, and our experience tells us this situation will worsen if the conflict continues.

CARE staff in South Sudan are receiving reports of women and girls being raped and killed in the bush or in hospitals and churches where they have sought shelter. Women are selling themselves for sex in exchange for access to drinking water for themselves and their families. Families are offering their young daughters as child brides in order to feed their other children. I was sickened to hear that one woman interviewed referred to another woman who had been raped as “lucky”, because it could have been worse – other women were raped and then killed.

In the face of the overwhelming need in South Sudan, the issue of sexual violence might seem peripheral – but sexual violence is a symptom of a broader societal breakdown. If the violence does not stop, the repercussions of unpunished rapes and assaults will haunt the South Sudanese for years. We have seen this in other conflicts around the world.

CARE is responding with support to over 40 health clinics across the country, including in the areas worst affected by the fighting, providing first aid, food and water alongside maternal health services. But it is a fraction of what is needed.  We are watching as families eat leaves from the trees in a desperate effort to survive. This is simply unacceptable.

As the world’s attention is stretched by other crises and world events, the Oslo conference is a tangible opportunity to help South Sudan. If we act now, we can prevent the worst, and help the people of South Sudan return to a more hopeful path.