The conflict has triggered an exodus from Khartoum.
Families left behind are living in constant fear of harm, while struggling to cope with lawlessness, dwindling food, water and medical supplies.
Before the conflict, families were already facing great difficulties providing adequate protection and care for their children due to the high cost of living caused by double-digit inflation, political unrest and climate shocks.
The recent surge in violence has created new challenges, with prices of basic goods up by 40 to 60 per cent, pushing already weakened families deeper into hardship.
Amid explosions and gunfire, parents cannot work or get access to food and water. Families struggle to cope, which makes it difficult for them to adequately care for their children.
Thomas Odera, the SOS Children’s Villages representative in charge of Sudan, says that beyond nutritious food, shelter and healthcare, children need to feel safe and reassured by their families.
“It is important to have caregivers who love and care for children especially in times of war, to protect them from the negative effects,” says Tom.
“Children and young people without parental care or at risk of losing it carry this burden themselves. They worry about their own safety, they lack reassurance and can be extremely afraid and distressed. Alone, they are unable to access life-saving services, healthcare and education, and they can be stranded and exposed to harm,” he says.
State of children in Sudan
According to UNICEF’s 2019 data, many children in Sudan have lost parental care due to poverty, armed conflict and displacement. Of the country’s approximately 23 million children, 82 percent live in a family environment, while 3.5 percent have lost parental care, including children living on the streets, those in armed groups, or engaged in child labour.
More than 600 people have died from the ongoing fighting and over 5,000 have been injured – this loss means more children are now without a caregiver or parent.
Orso Muneghina, the head of the Global Programme Expert Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support at SOS Children’s Villages, says conflict situations make things harder for children without parental care or are at risk of losing it.
“These children may not have the emotional support and stability that a family provides, which makes it difficult for them to handle the tough reality of the conflict,” says Orso, who lived in Sudan for five years until 2015. “They may feel more anxious, scared, and unsure about what will happen to them. Without a stable and caring family, they are defenceless to the negative impact of the war on their mental well-being.”
Children at risk of losing parental care come from families whose resilience is depleted, after continually being exposed to external shocks with no recovery time.
Living amidst conflict is nothing new for the Sudanese people. Hardly do they rebuild their lives and enjoy stability before another conflict erupts and they have to run again.
SOS Children’s Villages in Sudan has been supporting children without parental care or at risk of losing it since the 1970s. Almost all the children growing up in the village were found abandoned due to the stigma surrounding children born out of wedlock.
Unmarried mothers abandon their new born babies on the streets for fear of punishment from the authorities, and a backlash from the community.
In the early days of the conflict, the SOS Children’s Village in Khartoum evacuated all families after armed forces occupied the premises. Those families later moved to safer locations outside the city. Families in the community under the family strengthening programme have received cash transfers through mobile banking services, to use through this crisis and to help keep the families together.
Besides Khartoum, intense battles rage in the nearby cities of Bahri and Omdurman.
The western region of Dafur, a restive area that has suffered a protracted conflict for over two decades, is also experiencing violence.
The UN estimates that the recent fighting has forced over 200,000 people to flee Sudan to neighbouring countries, while 700,000 have been displaced within the country.
Children and young people at risk of losing parental care can find themselves separated from their families and end up displaced or on the move. Deprived of care, they are at risk of being recruited by armed groups, exploitation, neglect, child labour, trafficking and early marriage.
When children get separated from their parents during clashes, it can be really upsetting for them,” says Orso. “They may feel really scared, anxious, and helpless.
“These experiences can trigger problems like psychological trauma, anxiety disorders, or depression. However, how much this separation affects a child's mental health can be different for each child. It depends on how old the child is, how long the separation lasts, and the support they receive during and after the separation,” he says.
Colossal humanitarian needs
The situation of children in Sudan is particularly distressing as they continue to suffer from the consequences of past difficulties, now combined with the ongoing conflict.
Without factoring in the newly displaced people, Sudan already has 3.7 million internally displaced persons uprooted from their homes by conflicts in the past.
Those in need of emergency relief have to be added to the existing 15.8 million people requiring humanitarian assistance this year, including more than 8.5 million children.
Scarce resources mean that the burden of caring for children is proving too much for struggling families.
Data from UNICEF shows that 7 million children (one in three girls and one in four boys) are not in school. Some of these children go to work to support their families financially. 2.7 million children lack proper access to nutritious food.
With the new fighting, school closures have pushed many more children out of classrooms.
Schools are vital for children living in crisis, not only because they can gain skills and knowledge to rebuild their communities once the crises is over. Schools can also protect children from trauma and abuse.
Every day that girls stay out of school lowers their chances of returning to it, in a country where 34 percent of girls are married off before they are 18, and 12 percent are married before the age of 15 (State of the World’s Children Report, 2019).
SOS Children’s Villages is working on an emergency response plan to provide support to families affected by the crisis.
For children left without parental care, finding alternative caregivers or relatives who can offer them a stable and loving environment is a priority. They need people who can provide emotional support and make them feel safe.
Orso says rebuilding community structures that support healthy child development, like schools and healthcare facilities, needs to be considered, if children and young people without parental care and at risk of losing it are to rebuild their lives.
“Even in the toughest situations, children have the ability to bounce back and show resilience, especially when they receive the right support to help them recover,” says Orso.
“In addition to this, some children, especially those who have experienced significant and long-lasting distress, may require additional help and more focused support. It is important that their needs are detected and that appropriate care is provided.”