Feature Story

10 January 2011

Providing Support to Sudanese Returning Home to Vote

JUBA, Southern Sudan — Tens of thousands of Sudanese citizens are on the move, returning from the North to the South to participate in a referendum that will determine whether the South will secede.

UN agencies are working to ensure that returnees can quickly become reintegrated into society and that the needs of especially vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, female heads of households, and the country’s large cohort of young people, are given priority.

Returns to the South began accelerating at the beginning of November to reach a flow of 2,000 a day in the last week. Since late October, more than 143,000 people have returned. The largest number of returnees are currently concentrated in the border states of Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Warrap, Unity and Upper Nile.

Although most have reached their final destinations, as of 7 January, more than 14,000 and 12,000 were concentrated at transit stations in Aweil and Kwajok respectively, where they waited to board barges to take them down the White Nile to destinations in southern Sudan.

Many left with few belongings and little money, said Pam Delargy, the acting UNFPA representative in Khartoum. UNFPA is helping provide for some of their basic hygiene needs, with ‘dignity kits’ that provide soap, towels, toothpaste and female sanitary supplies. Clean delivery kits are also being provided to reduce the risk of infection during childbearing under  tough conditions.

Facing the unknown

In spite of the hardships and uncertainty they face, Southern Sudanese are “really, really excited,” about the referendum, says Silje Heitmann, the gender adviser for UNFPA in Southern Sudan. “That’s all they’re talking about now,” she said. But many people are also experiencing emotional turmoil due to the relocation, Ms. Delargy pointed out.

Most had established livelihoods in the North, and now face lack of job opportunities and of basic services in most parts of the undeveloped South. It is anticipated that most of the returnees, who are highly urbanized, will not be able to reintegrate in their ancestral places of origin in rural areas but will choose to settle in the capital, Juba, in other cities in the South or in transit points.

In a series of interviews at the Kosti transit point with returnees to southern Sudan, many expressed mixed feelings. The teenagers of the group were born in the North, have never been to the South before, and have no idea what the future holds.

Danial is a 15-year-old, the eldest of six children, whom he is in charge of as his parents have stayed behind to sell their properties and raise funds. Now in the sixth educational level, he dreams of continuing his education, but “it is all interrupted now,” he said. He has few expectations about Bor, his final destination, but he does expect his uncles there to celebrate their arrival to the village by killing cows and having a feast.

Sixteen-year-old Jacqueline also expressed uncertainty: “I do not know when I will leave this place and what I am going to do when I finally get to Juba.” Already she misses her school and schoolmates.

Difficulties are magnified for pregnant and nursing women

The move is difficult for pregnant and lactating women, many of whom are unaccompanied by their husbands, who have stayed behind to work or settle accounts. Mary, for instance, is in her ninth month of pregnancy, with five other children. She’s out of money, and the rations she gets are only beans and oil. But she is determined to get on the barge for the south, even if it means delivering on board. UNFPA has been working with partners to ensure there are doctors or midwives available on the launches.

Margaret is trying to nurse her seventh child, but her milk is drying out. She has no money, and little food. She missed one launch, and has now been at the transit point for a week waiting to depart.

The group of returnees also includes many female-headed households, because many women have been widowed during the many years of conflict that preceded the referendum.

Dealing with the loss of homes and livelihoods

Many of the returnees have left their homes and livelihoods with little idea of what will come next. Scholl, 36, is accompanied by his wife, four daughters and two nephews. He used to earn his living in Khartoum dealing in tobacco and small items. He left without being able to sell his house, or load all his properties on the truck, so he is without money. He left his belongings with a neighbour, but is uncertain whether he will ever be able to go back again and collect them.

Lado , 62, worked for the Supreme Court in Khartoum for more than thirty years, and retired on pension two years ago. He sent his family to Juba ahead and stayed in Khartoum to find out what will happen to his pension and service records in case of separation. He spent more than a month without getting a definite answer. Because he is handicapped, he has asked for priority to travel or have a convenient place on the barge, but still has no answer.

Most returnees from urban areas in the North are likely experience a significant decline in their access to basic services, at least for the immediate future, in the less developed South.  Few paved roads transverse a region the size of France, poverty and malnutrition are widespread, and few women can read or write. Access to primary health services and comprehensive emergency obstetric care is extremely limited. This is reflected in South Sudan’s extremely high rate of maternal mortality – estimated at 2, 054 deaths per 100,000 live births, the highest in the world.

Working to improve basic services

UNFPA Sudan, as part of its contingency planning, organized a series of trainings for trainers on the Minimum Initial Service Package for reproductive health. The package entails the provision of comprehensive reproductive services, integrated into primary health care. Components include prevention of infant and maternal death and illness, reduction of HIV transmission and the prevention and management of consequences of sexual violence. Last week the Australian government announced a $2 million donation to assist in providing basic reproductive health services.

In southern Sudan, UNFPA has focused primarily on the critical need to improve skilled attendance at birth, especially through all levels of midwifery training and through assisting the new government to set up basic health systems. Over the next few months, 20 midwives provided through the UN Volunteers will be deployed in the states to work on the establishment of improved maternal health services, including training of other midwives. HIV is also a serious threat and gender-based violence of all types is highly prevalent.

While the referendum is expected to pass, keeping the peace will require not only the rapid provision of basic services, the respect for human rights, economic recovery, and political, social and cultural reconciliation. And this needs to take place in an environment where a very large proportion of the population is young. Attention to the needs of young people -- to their education, livelihoods, health, and their attitudes toward each other – will be absolutely critical for the future of both countries. In this regard, the work of UNFPA with and for young people must be the foundation for the UNFPA programmes in these two countries.

“The last couple of months have been very calm and peaceful here,” said Ms. Heitmann. “We’re just doing what we can to provide services and holding our breaths that the peace will hold.”

Thanks to UNFPA Sudan for reportage

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