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Aluel's Future in South Sudan

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On July 10, 2011 Amou Lual had much to celebrate -- the birth of a beautiful baby girl, Aluel Auger, and the birth of her new nation. A day earlier, her country South Sudan had become independent from the Republic of Sudan after more than 50 years of war and humanitarian crisis.

"I was so happy that Aluel was born in an independent South Sudan," she said, thinking back to that day. "Now my child is free. She will have health, education and a good life with no disturbances."

Millions of South Sudanese shared Amou's optimism last year, anticipating that their country would soon be on a path toward progress and development. I'd like to be able to tell Amou that her hopes for her daughter are within reach, but at the rate South Sudan is going, I'm not so sure.

What are Aluel's chances? She was born in a country that has some of the world's highest maternal and child mortality rates, lowest rates of literacy and where women and girls suffer alarming levels of violence, abuse and oppression.

For the vast majority of the population, access to medical services is virtually non-existent. An average of one in seven children who survive childbirth in South Sudan die before their fifth birthday from largely preventable and treatable diseases. Most Sudanese have to walk many miles to get to a health facility and it is often too late by the time they get there.

Amou is among a lucky minority. She lives in Malualbai in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, close to a medical clinic run by my organization, the International Rescue Committee, and was able to deliver all six of her children there with no complications and receive post-natal care. Most women are more like her mom, Mary, who had no choice but to deliver eight children at home by untrained traditional birth attendants.

In South Sudan, child-bearing starts early. Girls are often forced into marriage before they have a chance to finish school. Early marriage leads to pregnancies at young ages, which can cause life threatening complications for mother and baby. Amou managed to finish the 2nd grade and Mary never had a chance to go to school. Both were married and having children by age 15.

"I don't want Aluel to get married early," Amou told staff at our health center. "I want her to finish school and be educated."

But in this first year of independence, South Sudan has made little headway in improving its woeful education system. And its heralded plans to build schools, hospitals, roads and other basic infrastructure have yet to get off the ground. Instead, the country has been wracked by problems -- some anticipated and others unforeseen -- that are distracting the government from attending to the basic needs of the population.

In the past year, more than a half million people have become newly displaced by conflict and hunger. Most are living in dire conditions in South Sudanese communities with no means to absorb or assist them. They include waves of refugees fleeing fighting and drought in Sudan's border states and returnees from Sudan who have no shelter, jobs or means of support. The country is also in economic crisis. Failed rains and harvests have led to severe food shortages for millions and soaring inflation makes available food cost-prohibitive. A dispute with Sudan over oil revenue led South Sudan to halt oil production, wiping out its main source of funding to kick-start essential services. The year was also marked by violent flare-ups between South Sudan and Sudan over ongoing and unresolved issues.

All of this has made international donors nervous and reluctant to invest in development programs. They've turned their attention to immediate emergency needs and have put on hold, plans for long-term programs -- the kind that will give Aluel and the next generation of South Sudan a real future.

This was never going to be a quick and easy process. It generally takes a decade or two for a country emerging from conflict to see significant progress in health, education and other key sectors. But history tells us that the only way to stop recurring humanitarian emergencies is through long-term development and that's got to start now if Aluel's generation is going to reap the rewards of their parent's and grandparent's struggle for independence.

Aluel's mother and grandmother remain positive -- savoring the freedom that came with independence and encouraged by small improvements, like a new water tap in their village. But they acknowledge how difficult it is to be a woman or a girl in South Sudan and hope that will change.

But if Aluel becomes anything like a typical South Sudanese woman today, she has an 80% chance of being illiterate, is at high risk of sexual and domestic violence and is more likely to die in childbirth than to finish secondary school. If economic opportunities remain this bleak, she'll spend her life scraping by on less than $1 a day like most of the people in the village where she was born.

Aluel and millions of other young people in South Sudan deserve much more than that and are counting on their government and the international donor community to change the odds. The one-year anniversary of independence is an opportunity for them to re-commit to the long-term development of South Sudan. It's crucial they do so if the South Sudanese people are to realize the promise of a better and more stable future.

Susan Purdin oversees humanitarian aid programs in South Sudan for the International Rescue Committee, a global aid organization that provides humanitarian assistance in conflict and disaster zones around the world.