Pornpun Jib Rabiltassaporn, the Save the Children Country Director in South Sudan. (Courtesy photo)

Q&A: ‘With over 3 million children out of school in South Sudan, we must work together to protect children’- Save the Children boss

Pornpun Jib Rabiltassaporn, the Save the Children Country Director in South Sudan, has said all stakeholders must marshal efforts to save, protect, and ensure that children get an education, grow, survive, and thrive.

Pornpun Jib Rabiltassaporn, the Save the Children Country Director in South Sudan, has said all stakeholders must marshal efforts to save, protect, and ensure that children get an education, grow, survive, and thrive.

In an exclusive interview with Radio Tamazuj, Jib discusses the plight of returnee and refugee children who fled the war in Sudan and the precarious state they currently live in, especially those who were unaccompanied and or separated from their parents and or guardians.

She also talks about Save the Children’s work in South Sudan and the dark shadow of dwindling humanitarian funding which translates into less interventions, thus more suffering.

Below are edited excerpts:   

Question: What challenges do returnees and refugee children fleeing the war in Sudan face on arrival in South Sudan and what are you doing to help?

Answer: Thank you so much for the question. I think we have to have an understanding of the South Sudan context and what the country and South Sudanese children have been going through. We have around 12.4 million total population out of which 9.4 million are totally in need. 1.6 million children aged five are at risk of malnutrition, 2.8 million children are out of school and 7.1 million people are food insecure. The country itself is very young and also facing a lot of challenges including those faced by children.

Now, when you talk about the Sudan crisis, while South Sudan has had its problems and needs assistance, it is one of the most generous countries when it comes to border policy. South Sudan has received over 600,000 people fleeing conflicts and the war in Sudan who have been arriving in South Sudan since 15 April last year. Out of the 600,000 arrivals in South Sudan, we have seen more than 300,000 children among them, which makes it 50 percent of the total arrivals.

Q: What is the condition of the children when they arrive at the border town of Renk in Upper Nile State after the arduous journey?

A: Out of the total arrivals from Sudan, right now we have around 10,000 people residing in Renk. The majority of people, including children, from Sudan have already commuted to their next destinations, either to their areas of origin or where their relatives reside in the country.  That makes it quite difficult for the country to absorb because when you have a population traveling with their children, you cannot expect them to work so they need assistance.

So, the situation in Renk right now is quite tough and challenging because the space that we have in Renk, the transit center, and the surrounding area has over 10,000 people. You have to also understand how they got to South Sudan. So many different people that we met and children that we spoke to about their journey from Sudan said it entailed a lot of difficulties because some of them walked for days while others were in donkey carts and trucks with only standing room for hours if not days. They were all exhausted.

Q: What is Save the Children doing to address this precarious situation?

A: In Renk, Save the Children has the child protection service team working to support children. So, what we do there particularly is provide child-friendly spaces, mental health and psychosocial support, case management for children who are at risk and we also have the family tracing and reunification process for children who arrived without caretakers or parents.

Over one year, we have seen around 6,800 cases of children who are unaccompanied or separated arriving in South Sudan from Sudan. Our teams and partners working in the child protection sector reunite the children who have been fleeing from Sudan with their parents or guardians. Right now we have over 600 children who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents. We also provide some emergency needs, clothes, small food items, and emergency basic needs.

Q: What is Save the Children doing to help girls who are often more vulnerable?   

A: Our teams have both females and males who are tasked to do different activities. We have specialized staff who work to identify children who are at great risk and we make sure that whenever we have to place children under foster care while reuniting them with their families, we have a checklist standard to ensure that their safety and all protection risks are considered and mitigated. That is why we are working on child protection in Renk because we understand how sensitive this program is and it requires specialized people.

Q: Are you talking about South Sudanese or Sudanese children?

A: We are talking about both returnees and also refugees that are coming from Sudan. Even though the majority of people and children who arrived in South Sudan are South Sudanese returnees, we also have Sudanese children as well as adults and they are all treated in the same way.

Q: Do you have an education program for returnees and refugee children?

A: That is a very good question, thank you so much. Save the Children of course advocates for quality education but understanding that the situation is fluid right now, and also because what we have in Renk is a transit center, we currently do not have the resources to implement education programs. Most of the resources are provided to other activities that are more prioritized.

Q: How many children are out of school in South Sudan currently?

A: Currently, in South Sudan, we have over 2.8 million children out of school and have just over 300,000 children who arrived from Sudan since 15 April 2023. I may not have the correct figures for the number of children still arriving from Sudan, but it is safe to say that it could now go above 3 million children who are out of school.  

Q: Do you have funding challenges in program implementation?

A: There are challenges in terms of funding. At the grand scheme of things, the UN emergency appeal for South Sudan this year is USD 18 billion and only 18 percent has been secured. We have seen a drastic humanitarian assistance funding cut in 2024 and we have also seen several projects being closed and others not being extended. So, we require more resources, especially to assist those who are arriving from Sudan to South Sudan in which more than 50 percent are children.

A: South Sudan has high school dropout and out-of-school children figures. Are you not worried that girls will be forced into early marriages and boys recruited by armed groups?

A: All of these that you mentioned are also our concern. Children, especially those who are unaccompanied, separated, or living below the poverty line, are at risk of early marriage, recruitment, and mental health problems as well. These are all problems we have seen and through our case management program, we have been able to address them through reuniting them with their parents and where possible, we have been able to send children to school. Let me tell you one story, if I may. There was a time I visited one of our field offices and I had to talk with beneficiaries and communities that we work with because that was the only way we could understand the situation. At a point in time, we had an education program up and running and we had different classes supported by different donors, one of the mothers of the girls came to me and said she was very thankful that these classes were up and running because, to them, these are lifesaving.  She said that without schools, they would have to send their girls into early marriage because they cannot afford to feed them or send them to far-off areas to get an education and that it is good the school was put near them.

So, without a school, children are at risk of being exploited and also at many other risks. Education is a way to improve children’s livelihoods and we cannot afford to lose a generation without education.

Q: Do you have any data on girls and boys you have helped avoid early marriages and saved from being recruited by armed groups?

A: I do not have the numbers right now, but certainly our team that works on child protection has the information in the system and I will be able to share with you the information.

Q: In which parts of South Sudan do you have programs?

A: Currently, we are working in seven states in South Sudan. In Sudan, we are working in 12 states. In South Sudan, we are working under education, child protection, child rights, governance as well as health, nutrition, integrated WASH, food security, livelihoods, and social protection, and this is quite similar to our programs in Sudan.

Q:  What are you doing for children across the country apart from the emergency programs?

A: Save the Children is one of the leading implementers of the multi-year resilience program that is funded by Education Cannot Wait and other programs alongside numerous partners. We have been working with NORAD, and the Norwegian and Danish governments and we have been able to implement national educational programs as well as some other education projects that are aligned under our basic educational programs.

We support expanding the capacity of schools, reconstruction of schools affected by the floods, ensure that children are enrolled and retained at school, and support the teachers and Teacher Parents Associations (PTAs). We have also been working to ensure flexible learning modalities, engaging with communities, and increasing awareness about the importance of education and why communities and parents should take children to school instead of marrying them off. These are the activities that we have been working with.

We have different types of modalities in education depending on the needs in different areas, whether it is static in classrooms or accelerated learning programs for those who missed out on classes through the years. A lot of our programs have to be tailored based on the needs of different and specific locations and we always coordinate with the Ministry of General Education and Instruction because we need to ensure alignment with the National Education Sector Plan and that what we do is not creating a parallel system.

Q:  What are you doing in terms of responding to humanitarian crises across South Sudan?

A: I believe that Save the Children as an organization, and also everyone, has a role to play to ensure that we can do better for the children we serve. I see from our perspective, that everyone can come in and do their part. From our end, we want to advocate for a scaling up of humanitarian response for humanitarian crises and other needs of children in South Sudan. We want to advocate for an increased level of funding because we understand that resources are required but beyond that, we also advocate for commitment and actions that are coming into play to protect children better.

Q: At what cost in terms of a budget is Save the Children operating annually?

A: Currently, we have around USD 40 Million and we hopefully have a few things in the pipeline but certainly nothing is certain because of funding cuts. There is quite a lot happening in the country but also it is a global phenomenon. We also understand that resources are not something that is given and if anything, it might be decreased based on what we have heard. That is what we also want to advocate, that resources are very much necessary for us to deliver assistance to children.

We also want to advocate for a peace process in Sudan so the war parties may come together to negotiate in good faith for the benefit of the community and the children.

Q: Apart from basic education, do you also impart general information and civic education to the children that they can share with their illiterate parents?

A: We focus on an integrated and holistic approach in most areas where we implement if possible. We want to ensure that we have a multisectoral approach for health and nutrition outcomes and other factors to be improved. We also work very closely with the local communities, local authorities, and children. We also have children’s clubs to make sure that children can voice out what their needs are. Many children we work with told our team that there is nothing for children without children and therefore it is important that their voices are heard and that they can advocate for themselves.

Q: With the war raging in Sudan and South Sudan about to go for elections in December, what do you foresee happening to the over 3 million children who are out of school in South Sudan?

A: I think this is part of our advocacy point as well because on average, we are still seeing daily arrivals of people, including children, from Sudan. While the situation is calmer now, in early March, we saw 2,000 in a single day. Right now the number is lower but we can never foresee for how long this number will stay this low or when it will stop completely while in the country, we still have 9.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

We are receiving more people and more children who are in need amidst resources that are going down and the situation is going to be challenging for communities and children.  So, we want to advocate that peace must be restored and that stakeholders come together to ensure that we put all communities and children first and that we can better protect them.

We also advocate that the funding level be increased and that humanitarian response in South Sudan is scaled up to meet the basic needs of the people in need.

Q: What is your key message to stakeholders as a children-centered organization?

A: Our advocacy point has remained quite similar; we want everyone to collectively come together to find solutions and do what is best for the children. The children are the next generation and have the right to be protected and it is upon all of us to come together and do our part.

Q: Do you have a parting shot?

A: Thank you for the opportunity. I know everyone is very busy so any chance that we have to share our points of view, our humble ask as a child rights organization, is to always ask how we can do better to protect our children.

Children do have rights to be protected, they have rights to have access to quality education and they have rights to grow, survive, and thrive in their lives. We all know that resources are going down and that there are so many conflicts in the world, unfortunately, and very sadly, but children are the next generation that can drive the nation to prosperity. And we believe that because they need to have their rights protected, it is up to us to come together and collectively find solutions for the better future of these children.