“The dream of a safe and peaceful South Sudan is becoming a living nightmare for its children,” said Yoka Brandt, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) said in a press release ahead of the UN-backed Oslo Humanitarian Pledging Conference, set to convene in the Norwegian capital on Tuesday. Five months into the conflict, around 80 per cent of children under of the age of five in the three most conflict-affected states – Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity – are at heightened risk of disease and death. Despite 80,000 people having been fully vaccinated against cholera, the South Sudanese Ministry of Health has confirmed a cholera outbreak in Juba. The cholera caseload is doubling every day, providing troubling proof that the deadly disease is spreading. UNICEF has helped set up a cholera treatment centre, is supplying tents for triage and patient care, hygiene equipment, clean water and oral rehydration solutions. Over the past 24 hours, hundreds of people have been trained to inform and mobilize communities. “Right now, the children of South Sudan need humanitarian assistance; they need their leaders to protect their lives, their rights, and their futures; and they need the world to listen – and demand action on their behalf,” she added. The world’s youngest nation has been enmeshed in a crisis which began in mid-December 2013 as a political dispute between President Kiir and his former deputy president, Mr. Machar, who had been forced from office earlier that year.The in-fighting erupted into full-fledged conflict believed to have left thousands of people dead and which has forced tens of thousands more to seek refuge at UN bases around the country. The political rivals signed an accord two weeks ago on ending the fighting, but Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has since urged maximum restraint by all parties amid accusations of breaches of the ceasefire. Briefing the Security Council last week, the UN chief said that by the end of this year, half of South Sudan’s 12 million people will be either in flight, facing starvation, or dead. According to UNICEF, at least half of these are children – the most innocent victims in what is increasingly becoming a children’s emergency. Children and women constitute the majority of those fleeing to neighboring countries. More than half a million children have fled the violence. Women and girls are increasingly sexually assaulted and the targets of gender-based violence. Schools and hospitals have been attacked or used by parties to conflict. More than 9,000 children have been recruited into armed forces by both sides. Thousands of children are separated from their families, within South Sudan and in neighboring countries. UNICEF goes on to stress that across the country, as many as 50,000 children could die from malnutrition; 740,000 children under the age of five are at high risk of food insecurity. Many are already resorting to eating wild foods such as bulbs and grasses. Although tireless efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance continue, without an all-inclusive political solution and a broader peace-building framework for promoting social cohesion, the crisis will deteriorate further, with profound consequences and impact on the most vulnerable, especially children. “UNICEF repeats its call for all parties to provide unhindered and safe access for humanitarian assistance; and to respect their own agreements to stop the violence against children, sexual and gender-based violence, and the recruitment of children,” the statement concludes.
RECENT EVENTS HAVE highlighted the inability of a largely monolithic and unrepresentative legislature to take decisions that are in the interest of people who are other than them. The overwhelmingly white, male Dáil, with its members predominantly selected from a narrow spectrum of dynastic families and professions, has proven itself to be incapable of acting justly toward all those historically excluded and marginalised. We have witnessed spectacular political blunders and injustices, for instance, in the handling of the Savita Halappanavar death and subsequent establishment of inquiries; in the refusal to introduce abortion legislation as mandated by the Irish people; in the treatment of Magdalene survivors; and in economic policy measures disproportionately disadvantaging women.While individual representatives sometimes try to constructively deal with issues predominantly affecting women, it is doubtful whether political institutions so explicitly eschewing diversity can adequately deal with such issues. Thankfully, as research from other jurisdictions shows, we can be hopeful that this may change somewhat in the future, given the introduction of gender quotas at the next general election.‘We accept systemic poverty in our society’What of those marginalised groups, though, who have been historically disadvantaged owing to other factors, such as race, ethnicity, or class? Incidences of racial hate crimes are rarely treated as a political priority, and we accept, as a matter of course, systemic economic inequality and poverty in our society. Added to this is the fact that people often have complex identities, which means they may be subject to multiple, perhaps reinforcing, disadvantages. The sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, describes such people as being subject to “interlocking systems of oppression”, as their lives are marked by “intersectionality”, that is, they are disadvantaged by virtue of their gender, race, and class, for instance.Examples of the negative impact of intersectionality and mutually reinforcing oppressive structures are easy to find in Ireland. The issue of abortion, for example, is instructive. Many women who need abortions are unable to travel to the UK due to immigration or asylum status, meaning that race/ethnicity and gender intersect in ways that distinctly disadvantage migrant women, ultimately resulting in a denial of their reproductive rights. Similarly, there is ample evidence to suggest that people who were placed in Magdalene institutions were put there because they were poor. The ideology of ‘fallen women’, coupled with a disdain for poor people, thus resulted in women, and in some instances girls, being incarcerated by virtue of their gender and their class.A homogenous legislature has not served us wellWhen understood like this, it becomes clear that intersectionality can be a powerful tool in drawing out the complexities involved in injustices committed against people who have been and continue to be marginalised. It is essential that political decisions are made with regard to such complexities. What better way to do so than by actually including those people in political decision-making, whose lived experience is intersectional, and who therefore have first-hand knowledge of the many ways in which disadvantage functions with regard to gender, race, or class, for instance?As the examples of abortion and the containment of women in Magdalene laundries highlight, a homogenous legislature has not served us well, given that we are living with the legacies of injustices committed for several decades. If we wish to not repeat the mistakes of the past, then we need to include historically marginalised populations in political decision-making, paying particular attention to intersectionality, and the specific inequalities and injustices that can arise there from. As a country coming to terms with widespread, systemic injustices committed against young people, women, working class people, and the various intersectional identities of these and many others, we must ensure that diversity takes centre-stage in the political institutions and processes governing our lives.Prof Patricia Hill Collins will be speaking on intersectionality and social justice in a public lecture organised by UCD Women’s Studies on 20 March. Dr Clara Fischer is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network.