Photography credit: SIHA Archives

SIHA Network is a regional network that works with women and girls across the Horn of Africa, including those residing in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) receiving sites, Protection of Civilians (POCs) camps, prisons, and urban poor communities.

The latest global warnings and protection guidance regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) have been, in our view, largely a conversation among the privileged. The risk mitigation afforded by these prevention measures leaves out those who do not have access or only have limited access to 1) information 2) sanitizers/disinfectants, and 3) soap and clean water. These global proclamations further show a callous indifference to the fact that much of the world’s population lives in a state of precarity which does not permit them to continue to access food and an income in the event of widespread public shutdown. Meaning that if complementary measures are not taken, the implementation of social distancing would destroy the livelihoods of women living in IDP and POC camps and urban slum communities across the Greater Horn of Africa region.

As of June 2019, there were more people than ever before facing critical food insecurity, with estimates that approximately 6.96 million (more than half the population) faced dangerously limited access to food[1]. Moreover, 59% of the population lacks water supply coverage and 89% of the population lacks sanitation coverage[2]. The situation of food and water shortage in Sudan is compounded by the flooding and continued violence that the country has seen over the past year. The state of insecurity and conflict in South Sudan also drives up prices of basic necessities including soap and disinfectants, making these items beyond the means and the reach of much of the South Sudanese population. The conflict further pushed millions of South Sudanese people into IDP and POC camps. These camps are characterized by overcrowding, makeshift housing, and acute levels of food, water, and sanitation shortage.

Women in South Sudan often carry full responsibility for providing food and basic needs for their families as men’s movement outside the home can result in d or death or disappearance. Given the limited economic opportunities for women in South Sudan, most women and girls survive on petty trade, typically selling teas, food, firewood, or charcoal in the markets and streets, as their primary or only source of livelihood. Because these women’s earnings are insufficient to permit them to generate savings, any interruption to their daily income can be catastrophic. This would certainly be the case if they lose customers because of widespread self-quarantining.

In light of the spread of coronavirus, we are very concerned about women and girls in the POC/IDP camps and prisons, women street vendors, domestic workers, hotel cleaning staff, and all other women in the highly diverse but often invisible informal economy across the region. We worry that the international community has forgotten that millions of South Sudanese people have been facing insufficient access to food, shelter, water, and sanitation for years, and that stakeholders are congratulating themselves on a job well done after distributing advice about hand washing and social distancing to communities who lack the means to implement such advice.

Based on this situation, we would like to make the following recommendations to specific stakeholders, including government line Ministries at national and state level, the UN, WHO, WFP, UNMISS-South Sudan, UNHCR, IOM, UN Habitat, UNFPA and all other international humanitarian agencies operating within the South Sudan context:

  1. Key ministries alongside regulatory bodies within the Government of South Sudan namely: Ministry of Health and State Ministries of Health and Environment, Directorate of Relief, Rehabilitation Commission, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Ministry of Local Government and State Ministry of Local government, Ministry and State Ministries of Gender, Child and Social Welfare must develop and invest in public health education campaigns that are furnished with accurate and up-to-date information. These campaigns must target women in urban slum communities, IDPS and POC camps, and prisons and must tailor their prevention and protection guidance to what is feasible and available in these local contexts.
    1. The Ministry of Health must direct all media outlets to develop and tailor campaigns that are far-reaching and accessible to all society;
    2. State governors and local state director generals of different departments must be engaged to develop information posters and flyers that can be shared in neighborhoods with the preventive measures written in the local languages;
  2. The Ministry of Water and Irrigations and State Urban water authorities in collaboration with key development partners like UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, and UNMISS-South Sudan should fast-track the consideration and construction of safe water points with soap or home to home delivery of water and soap within these slum, IDP and POC settlements as well as prisons.
  3. Comprehensive relief measures for food distribution should be developed with direct collaboration between the Directorate of Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, WFP and international relief aid organizations as well as other development organizations with a similar mandate to ensure there is no crowding at food distribution points to minimize risks e.g. distribute block by block and household by household.
  4. The Ministry of Trade and Industries should regulate the prices of food and all other basic necessities. Smaller food stuff sales points should be introduced to avoid mass movement to bigger markets.
  5. The Ministry of Health should work with the South Sudan Women Entrepreneurs Association to train and equip women street and market vendors as community health ambassadors to distribute hand sanitizers and health information. The women vendors must also be compensated with fair wages for these contributions.
  6. The Ministry of Health should immediately invest in safe water points, where running water and soap are provided and made available in public spaces like local markets, public toilets, and in the peripheries of cities and towns. They must ensure no fees are paid or solicited at public toilets.
  7. The Ministry of Health and State Ministry of Health and WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF should invest in the local production of sanitizers and face masks in partnership with local organizations and these can be sterilized at health facilities and distribution to citizens for free.
  8. Lastly, SIHA strongly recommends that the Government of South Sudan immediately implement the unconditional release of detained women, particularly pregnant women and women with children, who have not committed violent offenses, and ensure that all detention, prison, and law enforcement facilities and offices make sanitizer and/or soap with water continuously available to all prisoners, personnel, and visitors.

Under no circumstances should urban poor communities be subject to further marginalization through measures which stigmatize and harm them, such as forced community-wide quarantines which cut people off from access to food, water, medicines and other basic necessities.

[1] UNICEF. (2019). Record number of people facing critical lack of food in South Sudan.

[2] UNICEF. (2019). Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Report: South Sudan.