South Sudan may have closed schools in mid-March as part of precautions to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic but more than four months on, authorities are under intense pressure to reopen schools to save children from external hardships.
A number of international aid organisations have warned that children face a number of perils while away from classrooms such as early pregnancies, child labour, recruitment into illegal groups and mental anguish.
Last week, a joint statement by UNICEF and UNESCO argued that children and schools were not the predominant drivers of the spread of the pandemic.
UNESCO’s Chief of Education Tap Raj Pant told the Voice of America (VOA) that an extended period of closure of schools will affect the long-term transition of students.
“If the schools are not reopened timely, there is a big risk of not having enrolled children again back to school, which will increase the number of out-of-school children in South Sudan.”
UNICEF’s representative in South Sudan Dr. Mohamed Ayoya said that poverty and violence risked traumatizing children and malnourishment was a real threat due to children missing out on daily meals provided by school feeding programs.
“We have no other interest in South Sudan other than the interest of children, so reopening the schools is for the interest of the children and to make sure that tomorrow’s leaders of South Sudan are actually being provided with opportunity to train, to take forward the leadership of this country.”
Save the Children said it held webinars with children from South Sudan who narrated how the closure of schools had affected their lives.
Some of the accounts by the children said that several girls had been impregnated while boys had lost their lives. Others complained of loneliness and being deprived of their rights as children.
Save the Children said it was time to reevaluate the decision to close schools “in light of scientific evidence on risks to children.”
The organisation’s Country Director for South Sudan Rama Hansraj said that it was “worrying” that an estimated 2.2 million children were missing out on education.
“Within this period of COVID-19 and when schools reopen, Save the Children call for the protection of all children affected by COVID-19 from abuse, exploitation, gender-based violence and neglect, especially girls and the most marginalized, including but not limited to children outside of family care and in schools, children with disabilities, connected children,” Hansraj said.
Despite the pressure from the aid groups, Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Thuoi Loi told the VOA it was unclear when the virus will be under control and children can safely return to school.
“It is not yet a decision but there is a technical team actually comprised of the ministries of health and higher education to keep monitoring the trend of infection in the country, and at the same time see what can be done to resume with classes within the context of COVID-19 and adhering to the preventive measures.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has further encumbered South Sudan’s children who are still affected by political and economic instability, violence and a struggling health system.
As of August 2, South Sudan has reported 2,418 confirmed cases and 46 deaths from the coronavirus.