Meet teenagers Shaimaa, Malaz and Fiyha. Each has a story to share about how UNICEF has helped them stay safe, protected and empowered during a terrible war. But they are just three of the millions of children and adolescents who have seen their lives upended. As fighting in Sudan continues and conditions worsen — and with the world's attention fixed on other crises elsewhere — more support is urgently needed to sustain and scale UNICEF's emergency response.
"My name is Shaimaa. I am 14 years old, and this is my Makanna — my safe space."
When the fighting broke out, 14-year-old Shaimaa's family fled Khartoum for White Nile State in southeastern Sudan. While the war rages on, she spends her days at a UNICEF-supported safe space at the El Goz gathering point in Kosti.
The gathering point where the family is staying is one of the largest, hosting 140 households, or about 920 people. It is where UNICEF has established a Makanna — an Arabic word meaning 'our space' — center to deliver emergency services and support to children whose lives have been brutally disrupted.
At the Makanna, displaced children and children from host communities can access an integrated package of services designed to nurture their physical, social and emotional well-being — adolescents and caregivers too — all in one place.
The center offers structured learning and psychosocial support through recreation and play, case management for unaccompanied and separated children and protection services for survivors of gender-based violence. There are girls' clubs to empower members with life skills and information on preventing and responding to violence against children.
A mobile clinic providing critical health and nutrition services, including immunizations and nutrition screening, is also on-site. Safe drinking water is provided through water trucking.
It is a place to process, heal, play and recover. And every day, along with over 300 other boys and girls aged 3 to 18, Shaimaa is there. While she longs to return home to see her extended family and friends — "I want to go back to our house and go back to school as before,” she says — today she is benefiting from the services provided by partners and supported by UNICEF with donor funding.
UNICEF-supported facilitators run activities under high-performance tents
The learning and play happen in and around UNICEF high-performance tents, and there's a shift schedule by age group. In one tent, Shaimaa and other children sit quietly during an e-learning lesson. All eyes are glued to the small e-tablets mounted on wooden stands as they navigate through the interactive content. Learning is self-paced and supported by trained facilitators. With formal schools still closed, these alternative learning solutions are filling the gap.
Under a separate tent, younger children play games and engage in other fun activities. Playing is a priority at a UNICEF safe space because it is a great way to relieve stress and overcome trauma. Sometimes the children and young people engage in various traditional dances, songs and drama skits.
UNICEF provides recreational kits to support indoor and outdoor recreation. The kits include sports gear like soccer balls, volleyballs, whistles, vests and other items. The kids enjoy themselves despite the scorching sun. Shaimaa particularly loves volleyball, and is quick to join the girl’s team in blue.
Facilitators use daily sessions with children to educate them about the benefits of washing their hands with soap and water, and there are handwashing stations to support the practice. "We learned that clean hands save us from diseases that may affect our health,” Shaimaa says.
With an estimated 3.5 million Sudanese children displaced internally and across borders, UNICEF is working closely with partners to scale up the Makanna integrated, community-based approach as part of its ongoing emergency response, linking interventions in education with specialized child protection services and basic WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) support.
Separated from her mother, then reunited, 14-year-old Malaz finds shelter and support at a refugee camp in Chad
Malaz, 14, has spent the past seven months in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad. No country has taken more Sudanese refugees than Chad.
As Malaz and her mother both fled across the border to escape the escalating conflict, the two became separated.
“I left my home because of the war," Malaz says. "We heard gunshots and my neighbors were killed. I was crying that day. The people were telling us that [my mother] had been killed."
Malaz’s mother, Rokhya Daud Irda Omar, was also told her daughter had died, but she kept searching, and mother and daughter were eventually reunited. They remain at the camp, where UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Space has become a sanctuary for Malaz, who likes to draw. Like Shaimaa, she also likes to play volleyball.
Since the beginning of Sudan's crisis, in addition to providing safe places for refugee children to play and connect with their peers, UNICEF has also provided safe water, supported immunization and maternal care services, delivered learning and psychosocial support and worked to prevent and treat child and maternal malnutrition.
Standing up for herself: 13-year-old Fiyha says no to child marriage and other harmful practices
Fiyha is a 13-year-old child rights activist. Before the ongoing conflict in Sudan that led to the closure of schools across the country, she was the president of the Saleema club (girls' club) at Hamira Primary School, located in the remote locality of Al-Gabaleen, White Nile State.
At her home, located a mile or so from the main town, she sits under a makeshift shelter stitching clothes for her younger siblings, turning old fabric into neatly hand-sewn dresses with pleats. Occasionally she will knit little bags to match.
When she is not in the community reminding everyone about the rights of children, she takes time to play with her siblings, skipping rope and just being a kid.
As her school club's leader, Fiyha advocated alongside her peers against child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). The girls’ club is supported by UNICEF as part of a wider training and empowerment program network associated with the Sudan Free of FGM (SFFGM) program.
Through a combination of community outreach, songs, dramatic performances and door-to-door campaigns, Fiyha and other club members help raise awareness about harmful traditional practices including FGM, their impact on children, and the need for change.
"Girls need protection from child marriage, because they cannot bear such a heavy responsibility at an early age," Fiyha says. "This can be difficult for their physical and mental health." As soon as a girl reaches puberty, she becomes vulnerable.
Fiyha knows this firsthand. Seven months ago, she learned her relatives secretly planned to marry her off, together with her elder sister. "It was a dark day for me," she recalls.
Backed by her mother, Zahra — who she calls her strongest cheerleader — Fiyha stood up for herself. Zahra, a mother of five girls, had married young herself, and had vowed never to see this happen to her own children.
Aware of the available reporting pathways — which UNICEF supports as part of its overall child protection strategy — Fiyha reached out to Salwa, the local girls' club supervisor, for help and the marriage plan was canceled.
“If I wasn’t empowered by the club, I would be married today," Fiyha says. "My education would have been interrupted, and I would be in a world different from the one I am in now."
While she says the incident crushed her at the time, today she believes it has made her even stronger. But she also believes that as long as schools remain closed due to the war, children are at risk of violence and exploitation. Boys and girls who are displaced are especially vulnerable, and Fiyha believes she must reach them.
Re-doubling efforts to reach every child
During crises and displacements, violence against children heightens. As such, UNICEF is realigning interventions under the joint program with its emergency response. That includes educating children and young people on how to identify, prevent, respond to and report violence, including gender-based violence, with the support of trained counselors and social workers.
Meanwhile, young people like Fiyha and many others who have already been trained are taking the lead in advocating against FGM and child marriage in their communities.
Working closely with the girls’ club supervisor, Fiyha organizes and delivers sensitization sessions with parents, caregivers, children and young people. She also makes hospital visits. At Aljabalin Hospital, she conducted a session with mothers who have just delivered, encouraging them to keep their babies saleema (protected). “This is the best gift you will ever give your daughter,’” she says, before reminding them not to marry them off before they are old enough.
As she waits for schools to reopen, Fiyha has worked out a schedule with the locality supervisor that keeps her busy with her advocate role.
“Many people believe that since schools are closed, we should get married because there is no education,” Fiyha said. But we say, whether there is a school or not, we shall continue with the awareness drives in hospitals, neighborhoods, social gatherings and everywhere.”
UNICEF Child Protection Officer Hagir Osman notes that UNICEF has also established clubs within the internally displaced people’s shelter camps, integrating them with existing clubs. And so the program interventions continue to make a significant impact, its influence still very clear.
“We have been able, through the clubs, to integrate the program activities into our current emergency response, to build on the gains registered before the war,” Osman says.
Fiyha dreams of becoming a lawyer so she can participate in enacting laws that protect children from violence, early marriage and FGM. “I am determined to rid society of harmful traditions like female genital mutilation and child marriage. As a future lawyer, I will be able to defend every girl who is threatened by these vices,” she says.
An appeal to UNICEF supporters: help sustain and scale lifesaving emergency programs for children impacted by the war in Sudan
Since the start of the war between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in April 2023, over 7.6 million people — over half of them children — have been forced to flee widespread violence. In December 2023, the escalation in fighting in Gezira state alone displaced half a million people.
Insecurity, bureaucratic impediments, internet connectivity challenges and limited technical and humanitarian staff are affecting the delivery of aid. Despite these challenges, UNICEF and partners have so far reached:
- over 6.4 million people with health supplies
- 5.9 million people with safe drinking water
- 5.4 million children with malnutrition screening – of whom almost 313,400 received lifesaving treatment
- 870,100 people with psychosocial counseling, learning, and protection support
Another 300,000 people have been reached with cash assistance, information and services to preserve their health and resilience.
But much more support from the international community is needed to help sustain and scale essential services that children rely on to survive. Current funding levels have fallen short.
"This war ... is destroying health and nutrition systems, and that is killing people," UNICEF spokesperson James Elder said during a press briefing on Feb.9. "This is a war destroying the concept of respect for the laws of war, and that is killing people. This is a war destroying families’ ability to feed and protect themselves, and that is killing people.
"But this is also a war destroying opportunity, and that destroys a country and the future of an entire generation."
Elder continued: "People are using every last ounce of strength and resilience to survive and support their communities. Yet, the people of Sudan are increasingly feeling abandoned by the world. When it comes to the children and youth of Sudan, the world needs to stop turning a blind eye."
Help UNICEF provide lifesaving support to the children of Sudan. Your contribution can make a difference. Donate today.