UNICEF – The future for a generation of children in South Sudan is being stolen by the year-long conflict in the country, which has driven hundreds of thousands of children from their homes, schools and communities; subjecting them to violence, malnutrition and disease, the UNICEF said today.

The scale of the crisis in the world’s youngest country is staggering, said UNICEF. Since the violence erupted on 15 December 2013, almost 750,000 children have been internally displaced and more than 320,000 are living as refugees. An estimated 400,000 children have been forced out of school and 12,000 are reported as being used by armed forces and groups in the conflict. With traditional social structures damaged, children are also increasingly vulnerable to violence and to sexual abuse and exploitation.

“The future of South Sudan’s children – and of the country itself – is being grossly undermined by the ongoing fighting,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan. “We will continue our enormous relief operation targeting hundreds of thousands of children, but what they need more than anything, is peace.”

Malnutrition rates among children have more than doubled as a result of the conflict. In response, UNICEF has scaled up its nutrition programme and brought on additional partners to help with the expanded caseload. So far, more than 80,000 severely acutely malnourished children have been admitted to therapeutic care. And while South Sudan avoided falling into famine this year, the country is likely to face a much more devastating food crisis unless there is peace and stability early in 2015.

As the end of the rainy season improves access on South Sudan’s dirt roads, UNICEF is pre-positioning life-saving supplies at key locations, strengthening its emergency response in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile – the three contested states where needs are most acute.

UNICEF and the World Food Programme Rapid Response Missions are also reaching communities in the remotest areas by air, delivering a range of critical services. The missions provide screening and treatment of children for malnutrition as well as safe water and sanitation. Children are immunised, and separated children are registered so they can be reunited with their families. Where possible, basic education and psychosocial support is provided. So far, more than 590,000 people have been helped, including 125,000 children under the age of five, in 34 joint missions.

With education interrupted for vast numbers of children, UNICEF’s “Back to Learning” initiative aims to rehabilitate 225 damaged classrooms and provide the estimated 400,000 children forced out of school with access to education. UNICEF is also working with the Government to include peacebuilding programmes in the national curriculum.

“We must seize the opportunity the dry season affords us,” said UNICEF’s Veitch. “Any humanitarian gains we make, however, are extremely precarious. Should the fighting intensify, as many fear, this will trigger yet more large-scale displacements, and deepen the vulnerability of already exhausted communities and their children.”

UNICEF will require approximately US$166 million to fund its South Sudan emergency response in 2015.