The Children of South Sudan

18/07/2012 11:25 BST | Updated 17/09/2012 10:12 BST

First birthdays are meant to be about celebrating; the first milestone in a young life has been reached. But when South Sudan turned one this month the celebrations occurred against a backdrop of continuing strife and suffering for the children of the world's newest nation.

A year ago the atmosphere was full of hope and promise for what the future held for South Sudan and its children now the country had finally achieved independence from its neighbour in the North after decades of painful struggle and conflict.

But one year on life is still looking bleak for children. It remains one of the toughest countries in the world in which to be born.

UNICEF colleagues in South Sudan have identified the country as one of the toughest development challenges anywhere in the world.

After twenty-two years of violent civil war, the remnants of the ongoing conflict between Sudan and South Sudan are still impacting on children's lives so it's not hard to see why recovery is a long slow road.

And a major funding shortfall is making that road even longer; the 2012 consolidated appeal by all UN agencies and NGOs for South Sudan is only 45% funded, while UNICEF's requirement of $94 million is still falling $46 million short.

This means seventy percent of children have never set foot in a classroom and barely one in ten children finishes their primary education, one of the lowest rates in the world. A fifth of the population are also malnourished.

It shouldn't be like this. We can't solve all the problems at once but with help from the UK public, dedicated staff and private investment from companies like Unilever, we are making a start in helping those children who need it most.

There is much talk in development circles these days about the contribution that can be made by the private sector and UNICEF is working hard to engage companies in acting on the responsibilities described in the new Children's Rights Principles for Business. Companies can make a positive difference even in countries like South Sudan that face immense development challenges and don't yet constitute major markets for the products of global businesses.

At UNICEF UK, one way that we are helping South Sudan take a small step on the road to recovery is through our partnership with Domestos - owned by Unilever - who are donating a percentage of every bottle sold in Sainsbury's through the summer months to UNICEF's vital sanitation work in South Sudan, where less than thirteen percent of the population are able to use a toilet.

Improving access to proper sanitation for the world's population is critical if we are going to help all the world's children survive and thrive.

But despite the figures - 2.5 billion people globally live without access to basic toilets and an estimated 3,000 children die every day from diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation - sanitation is not an issue that corporate investors have so far jumped on. It's not hard to guess why. But of course Unilever is one company that is not afraid to talk about toilets.

Sanitation remains one of the Millennium Development Goals that is most lagging behind its 2015 target, and the World Bank recently estimated that failure to improve sanitation is costing the average African country up to 5 billion dollars a year in terms of lost productivity and GDP.

In South Sudan, UNICEF's sanitation programme is currently serving a displaced population of 300,000 and an additional ¼ million returnees coming back to the country after independence.

It's a huge programme running in a volatile environment with children and their families who's lives are still scarred from war. Deeply ingrained practices of open defecation and a lack of awareness of the danger of faeces mean that education and behavioural change are just as crucial as actually building toilets.

With the support and money from organisations like Unilever, UNICEF can get our sanitation experts out to remote communities to engage young people about the importance of hygienic practices, so they can act as the drivers of behavioural change in their communities and create a long lasting sustainable difference. Those young people are not afraid to talk about toilets either - they know that, by doing so, they can help save children's lives.

Recognising the role they can play in helping agencies like UNICEF reach global development targets such as the MDG on sanitation, the Unilever Foundation are also investing more widely in UNICEF's sanitation programmes in another eight countries around the world, reaching hundreds of thousands more children and their families.

A child being able to use a toilet is no joke. Poor sanitation leads to illness, causes children, especially girls, to miss out on school, and in many cases leads to death. We are working to keep children healthy and give them a better start in life, even in some of the most challenging countries in the world. Many other things need to change too, but I hope progress on sanitation will mean that by the time South Sudan celebrates its second birthday, the future will look brighter for many of the country's children.