Four years ago, Deng Machar’s three children, all under the age of six, were abducted from their home in South Sudan. Machar believes that two of them were likely sold for cattle after being kidnapped by men from the rival Murle tribe, and doubts that his youngest son—who was only two years old when seized—is still alive. On the same day Machar’s children were abducted, nine other children in the area were kidnapped. None of them have been heard from ever since.
Tragedies like this are often overlooked by the South Sudanese government, which has proven itself to be all but ineffectual in finding these missing children and punishing their abductors, and largely ignored by the rest of the world.
In fact, the kidnapping and selling of children in South Sudan has been an ongoing issue for centuries, but it was not until 2008 that the autonomous government of Southern Sudan (now South Sudan) placed a specific ban on child trafficking. They passed the South Sudan Child Rights Act, which banned the use of child soldiers or laborers in military and paramilitary activities, but specifying only when “do not serve the interests of the child.” Yet when it came to stipulating a penalty, the act set a maximum sentence of ten years and a fine if convicted, a sentence markedly lighter than that for knowingly owning stolen property.
Even that quickly seemed like it would be too much of an ask. The law largely went unenforced; ultimately, even after being put into effect, the rate of abduction, trafficking, and forced recruitment of children into fighting forces continued to increase.
In December 2013, not long after South Sudan won its independence from Muslim-majority Sudan, a three-way civil war broke out along ethnopolitical lines. The war was fuelled by child trafficking, with over 17 thousand serving throughout its course. In addition, 70% of women and girls had been a victim of sexual assault, largely at the hands of police forces and soldiers. In August 2018, the three sides signed a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement.
Yet the conflict continues to have a significant effect on the lives of children in South Sudan. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), a large number of children who had been abducted and forced to fight during the civil war have still not made it home. In fact, even two years after the ceasefire, the rate of forced child recruitment into armed groups continues to rise, the U.N. Commission reports, the children now being forced to fight in smaller conflicts between political and ethnic groups.
Yet the effects of decades of armed conflict on child trafficking is far from limited to the battlefield. Widespread economic destitution and food insecurity, products of past warfare, has left child trafficking to be one of the last viable ways to make a living.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Thiro Akungurouth, a Murle youth leader, said that kidnappers often force children into backbreaking labor; when they are not in need of laborers, however, they trade children for livestock. Recently, the number of children belonging to the latter group has increased significantly following the war. South Sudanese girls are often sold by their own families into marriage for cows to expand their family’s herd and buy wives for the girls’ brothers, Los Angeles Times says. According to UNICEF, South Sudan has one of the highest rates of child marriages worldwide, with about 45% of girls being married before the age of 18. Indeed, girls are often married off to significantly older men, who tend to own the most cows. Once married, girls are expected to work, obey their husbands, bear many children, and endure domestic physical and sexual abuse.
However, any child, no matter their age, can usually sell for 20 cows, worth about $7,000, Akingurouth said. And in the ninth poorest country in the world, $7,000 can mean the difference between survival and starvation.
Even after the enactment of more child protection laws, the rate of child kidnappings grows by the day as corrupt South Sudanese federal, state, and local governments lay negligent and the media largely silent. As the government neglects its own civilians’ human rights and the terms of the 2015 ceasefire shows more and more signs of its own instability, the underlying poverty that allowed child trafficking to become a possible means of survival finds itself as just another item on a long list of problems that are long due for a solution but have no end in sight.
The shortage of coverage on child abductions and trafficking in South Sudan—at least in part due to the country’s unremitting violence against journalists—has caused this issue to be under-covered all over the world. Nevertheless, enough of the facts are out there, and they have been for far too long—it is now incumbent on us, the people of the world, to take notice. Nobody knows what exactly it will take to break down what has become one of the largest child trafficking rigs in the world or put an end to the cycle of warfare and poverty that has allowed it to continue; what we can be sure of, however, is that ignorance and inaction—the world’s modus operandi up until now—will not solve anything. Change can only ever come when we stay vocal and vigilant in the fight against human rights abuses. We must recognize that as a violation of human rights, child trafficking in South Sudan must be treated not as an isolated phenomenon, but an attack on humanity as a whole.