Jane* looks much older than she is. Every word spoken by the 17-year-old is preceded by a shameful look on the ground. She is one of many unaccompanied children who came to Imvepi refugee settlement together with her three sisters. Jane has been in the camp for two months and fled from armed forces who killed her father and brother in South Sudan. It took them five days to come to Imvepi from Yei, their hometown in South Sudan. Just before Jane’s parents were killed, they had sent their children away knowing their lives were in danger. A few days later, Jane received a phone call saying that her biggest fear came true.
“I miss my parents but I’m happy we left the people with the guns behind,” she says. But although she moved to Imvepi, she is still not safe. A few days ago, Jane and her sisters were attacked in the middle of the night in the refugee settlement by a group of about 15 men. “They shouted that they wanted to kill us and that this would be the last time for us to see the light,” Jane says. “And then they touched us…”, she adds. It was the third time they got attacked ever since they moved to Imvepi.
Refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo: CARE/Peter Caton
When they told others in the camp about the incident, they received very little empathy. “They told us we should have just let them kill us”, she says. Jane was 11 years old when in 2011 South Sudan declared independence. Six years later, the country is ravaged by fighting, severe hunger and mass displacement. As almost 4 million people have been forced to flee from the conflict, many of them brought the home-grown tensions across the border to the settlements.
Imvepi currently hosts more than 110,000 refugees; almost three times the number of locals in the sub-county of Odupi. Of the 1.2 million refugees in Uganda, 900,000 are South Sudanese and 86% are women and children who are in real danger of sexual and physical violence, with many reporting incidents of violence on their brutal journey.
Upon arrival in the refugee settlements in Uganda, underage children are immediately located and found a foster family within two to three days. However, many of them decide to move out by themselves and fall back under the risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Too often they end up trading sex for money – earning as little as 2,000 Ugandan Shillings (1 USD) per exchange. CARE holds awareness raising sessions on sexual and reproductive health with unaccompanied minors to highlight the risks and prevent threats of sexual violence. “We cannot provide survivors of sexual and gender-based violence with support to heal from their trauma, but at the same time be unable to meet their basic needs, forcing them into selling their bodies for survival,” says Delphine Pinault, CARE Uganda’s Country Director.
Jane’s life has changed dramatically ever since she left home. As the eldest, she has to take care of her younger sisters. Food usually finishes before they receive the next ration. This month, they already ran out of soap and have little to no clothes left except for the ones they were wearing when they fled. Nowadays she usually wakes up to pray, then starts to prepare breakfast for her sisters and goes to Imvepi’s reception center to help out other refugees fleeing from South Sudan. She has not gone back to school. Her fear to be attacked on the way to school is too big, although she would like to return. Eventually, she wants to become an accountant or teacher and move closer to a city to feel safer.
CARE has built a shelter for Jane and her sisters close to the police station in the settlement to prevent her from the risk of further attacks. Together with their caretaker, Albert, she now feels safer and found someone who gives her advice, hope and prospects for a better life.
However, low security levels in the camps are of particular concern for women and children who are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Currently, the entire settlement is overseen by only five police officers supported by five crime prevention and field force units. To increase security, CARE has trained 58 volunteers and 30 refugee welfare leaders to actively prevent further sexual and physical violence in the settlements and act as a neighborhood watch. In addition, five centers were established where refugee women and girls can seek assistance and sexual violence survivors can be provided with psychosocial support. To date, over 42,000 refugees with reproductive health and violence prevention services were reached but many more are in need of assistance to get over their horrific experiences.
“Only if peace in South Sudan lasts for more than 10 years, I would trust my country to be safe enough to move back,” Jane says. But with little to celebrate as South Sudan marks its 6th anniversary of independence this week, her hope to one day return home is waning.
*name changed for protection purposes
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