Children in South Sudan said hunger was forcing more young people to drop out of school, putting girls at risk of early marriage and sexual exploitation, and forcing some boys into crime, according to Save the Children research being released on Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly.

The child right’s organisation asked 65 children aged 9-17 in five communities in the world’s newest country about how they were coping with COVID-19, hunger and ongoing conflict. The consultations found many children reported feeling dizzy and lethargic from a lack of food and unable to concentrate, which was affecting their learning, socialising, moods and behaviour.

The children said to cope some boys were engaging in violent acts, like stealing, robbery, petty crime, and some girls were sexually exploited as a means of generating income for food. Other ways of coping with hunger included playing games with other children and reading to distract from the feeling of hunger, sharing meals, reducing food intake, and eating from wild trees.

South Sudan is facing its worst ever hunger crisis at it marks 10 years of independence, with at least 7.2 million people or 65% of the population, on the brink of starvation with civil war, climate shocks and high food prices fuelling the situation. Some 1.4 million children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year, the highest figure since 2013.

 “I left our house because my mother died and my father wanted to give me out for marriage, so I ran away and right now I have no support so I work in people’s house so that I can eat,” one teenage girl, Aamira*, told Save the Children during the consultations.

 “We want to be educated but how can a child go to school and learn on an empty stomach?” said teenage boys Achol* and Mabior*.

 The children who took part in group consultations in August spoke about surviving by collecting empty bottles and other garbage to sell in local markets, fetching firewood or water for people, brewing alcohol, and fishing.

 Children who managed to stay in school appreciated the opportunity and reported being far more aware about the risks of child labour and early child marriages.

 South Sudan is one of the countries whose education system is at “extreme risk” of collapse, according to a Save the Children report, “Build Forward Better”, released earlier this month. The study found education was on the brink of collapse in 48 countries, with others facing “extreme risk” including the DRC, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mali, and Libya. Syria and Yemen follow closely behind.

 Save the Children CEO Inger Ashing, due to speak at the virtual UN high-level event “Protection of Children, Invisible Victims of Armed Conflict and COVID-19”, said it was important children affected by armed conflict did not remain invisible in the post-COVID recovery and children’s rights were respected and needs addressed.

 “We need to pay careful attention to their recommendations and ensure we take swift action to better protect children and education systems from conflict and the climate crisis,” Ms Ashing said.

 “Schools protect children from the physical dangers around them such as child recruitment or child, early and forced marriage.”

 Save the Children has been working with and for children, their families and communities in South Sudan since 1991, providing access to education, healthcare and nutrition support, and families with food security and livelihoods assistance. Our child protection programmes support vulnerable children including unaccompanied and separated children and those affected by violence.

 In response to the current crisis, Save the Children is supporting hunger-affected households and livelihoods with cash transfers, promoting positive nutrition practices and infant and young child feeding practices, and distributing emergency food assistance.

 *Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children involved.