South Sudan Country Profile – Social

Last updated: 24 November 2020

Official celebration in Juba a symbol of progress towards peace in South Sudan (UNMISS)

From Cia Facebook (Page last updated on October 09, 2020)

Population: 10,561,244 (July 2020 est.)

Nationality: South Sudanese

Ethnic groups: Dinka (Jieng) 35.8%, Nuer (Naath) 15.6%, Shilluk (Chollo), Azande, Bari, Kakwa, Kuku, Murle, Mandari, Didinga, Ndogo, Bviri, Lndi, Anuak, Bongo, Lango, Dungotona, Acholi, Baka, Fertit (2011 est.)

Languages: English (official), Arabic (includes Juba and Sudanese variants), regional languages include Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Zande, Shilluk

Religions: animist, Christian, Muslim

Demographic profile:

South Sudan, independent from Sudan since July 2011 after decades of civil war, is one of the world’s poorest countries and ranks among the lowest in many socioeconomic categories. Problems are exacerbated by ongoing tensions with Sudan over oil revenues and land borders, fighting between government forces and rebel groups, and inter-communal violence. Most of the population lives off of farming, while smaller numbers rely on animal husbandry; more than 80% of the populace lives in rural areas. The maternal mortality rate is among the world’s highest for a variety of reasons, including a shortage of health care workers, facilities, and supplies; poor roads and a lack of transport; and cultural beliefs that prevent women from seeking obstetric care. Most women marry and start having children early, giving birth at home with the assistance of traditional birth attendants, who are unable to handle complications.

Educational attainment is extremely poor due to the lack of schools, qualified teachers, and materials. Less than a third of the population is literate (the rate is even lower among women), and half live below the poverty line. Teachers and students are also struggling with the switch from Arabic to English as the language of instruction. Many adults missed out on schooling because of warfare and displacement.

Almost 2 million South Sudanese have sought refuge in neighboring countries since the current conflict began in December 2013. Another 1.96 million South Sudanese are internally displaced as of August 2017. Despite South Sudan’s instability and lack of infrastructure and social services, more than 240,000 people have fled to South Sudan to escape fighting in Sudan.

Other information about South Sudan – Social:

from World Population Review (WPR)UNHCRUSAIDNUPI, and AFDB

Major religions. According to the WPR, South Sudan is a fairly religiously divided nation. The top two faiths are traditional African religions and Christianity, and the percentages of each vary depending on who you ask. A study, “Religion in South Sudan,” by the Pew Research on Religion, stated that South Sudan’s population is 60.5% Christian, 32.9% follow traditional African religion, 6.2% are Muslim, and 0.4% are considered “other.” Due to the ruling of Islamic Sudan over Southern Sudan between 1956 and 2005, the South Sudanese culture was also influenced by Islam, especially in the western and northern parts of Greater Bahr el Ghazal, where nomadic Arabs continue to migrate into South Sudan and traders used to come from the north. 

Life expectancy. 56 years (men), 58 years (women).

South Sudan – Population Density (Copyright Geo-Ref.Net)

from CIA World Factbook and Cultural Atlas​​​​​​​

Population. The Dinka (a Nilotic people) are the biggest ethnic group in South Sudan, forming approximately 35.8% of the population. The Nuer (also Nilotic) is the second biggest ethnic group (15.6%). Other ethnicities or tribes include the Shilluk (Chollo), Luo, Bari, Azande, Anuak, Murle, Kuku, Kakwa, Mandari, Murle, Ndogom Lndi, Lango, Didinga, Dungatona, Acholi, Baka, Fertit, Bviri, Kreish, Bongo, Jiek and Nuba.

Main Ethnic Groups

  • Dinka. The Dinka tribe constitutes the biggest ethnic group of South Sudan and probably counts for almost 40% of the population. They are pastoralists and let their cattle graze on the Greater Bahr el Ghazal, in the Pariang County in Unity, in and North of Bor as well as along the Eastern shore of the Nile in Upper Nile State. These geographical divisions reflect themselves into political rivalries among the different Dinka subgroups. While the historical leader of the SPLM, John GARANG, as well as the core leadership of the uprising, came from the Bor area the current President Salva KIIR comes from Greater Bahr el Ghazal (Gogrial in Warrap), which might at times lead to political disagreement. Several other ethnic groups have repeatedly accused the Dinkas of using the South Sudanese institutions to advance a tribal agenda.
  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Nuer. The Nuers are pastoralists and count for about 30% of the South Sudanese population. While the Unity State, with the exception of the Pariang County, is inhabited by the Nuer people, most of them live on the Eastern side of the Nile, in Southern Upper Nile, Northern Jonglei, and Western Ethiopia around Gambella. The former vice president and current SPLM in opposition, Riek Machar, is a Nuer from Leer in Unity, while the military commander of the SPLA in opposition, Peter Gadet, originates from Mayom, the hometown of the Bull Nuers. The Nuer culture is very similar to the Dinka customs but distinguished itself by a very particular set of traditional believes and superstition as well as by a very efficient mobilization process of the youth in order to fight. Since the end of the 19th century, several Nuer prophets, following Ngundeng Bong, appeared among the Nuer people and spread well-remembered prophecies. As of June 2014, Dak Kueth, a native of the Yuai area in Jonglei, continues to be recognized as an active prophet and exercises considerable influence over the cattle camp youth. Riek Machar reportedly possesses the “magical” stick of the original Ngundeng Bong prophet. While they seem to show greater solidarity than the Dinkas, the Nuer are also divided into subgroups. Most of the Bul Nuer from Mayom, for instance, openly supported the Juba government in the crisis in June 2014.
  • ​​​​​​​Murle. The Murle Tribe constitutes a relatively small (about 160 000 persons) ethnic group of pastoralists living in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (formerly Pibor County). Depending on the season, besides the cattle, they will get their food from the river (fishing), the forests (wild honey and herbs), agriculture (sorghum) of the game (the Kob migration). While the Dinkas and the Nuers share many linguistic and cultural similarities, the Murle speak a totally different language and have developed a unique culture due to their geographical isolation in the swamps of the eastern 
  • ​​​​​​​Jonglei. They don’t respect an established permanent political structure among the tribe, but the men’s loyalty goes to the age set (or generation) they belong to. The “dominant” generation gathers the men from about 20 to 30 years old and forms the warrior age set defending the tribe (and raiding the cattle of their neighbors at times). As of June 2014, the Botonya generation is being contested by the younger Lango age set. Due to their marginalization and fierce and independent culture, the Murles participated in several uprisings in the past. David Yau Yau, from the Botonya generation, led the last armed rebellion against the Juba government until his group was finally integrated into the government forces in early 2014.
  • ​​​​​​​Other relevant ethnic groups. The Fertits are farmers living west and south of Wau and have an old as well as the recent history of violent clashes with the Dinka administration of Western Bahr el Ghazal. The Shilluks live on the Eastern side of the Nile in Upper Nile State and respect the authority of a customary king. Due to the marginalization by the Juba authorities, some Shilluk leaders such as Olony and Ogat led an armed rebellion against the government of South Sudan until agreements were reached in 2013. The exact status of the different Shilluk armed groups, however, remains largely unclear and the Shiluks declared in February 2014 the creation of a new Shilluk self-defense group. The amount of Dinkas living in Juba is misleading, as the original people living in the area of the capital and further North towards Bor are the Bari and the Mundari. Although they possess cattle, they are mainly farmers and complain about the frequent incursions from the Bor Dinka cattle keepers into their territory. This is a general concern for most of the farmers of the three Equatoria States: the Zande in Western Equatoria complain about the Dinka incursions into their farmlands while the Topposa in eastern Equatoria has a border dispute with the Jonglei State. The Topposas constitute an exception in the Equatorias because of their pastoralist culture and their historical involvement in wars. 

The people of South Sudan tend to feel a stronger sense of belonging to their tribe or ethnic group before identifying as citizens of the sovereign state. During the years of civil war with North Sudan, many ethnicities and tribes were able to set aside their differences in order to unite to fight for independence. There was a lot of hope and excitement among the broader South Sudanese community when the country gained independence in 2011. However, when conflict erupted in 2013 over competition for political power over the newly formed country, community opinion became divided again.

It is important to understand that although the current civil war has an ethnic undertone, this does not reflect the attitudes of all South Sudanese. People generally treat each other equally, unless they are politically involved individuals (i.e. members of the army) or live in the specific regions affected by violence. For South Sudanese living in host countries, some people may boycott the community events of another ethnicity; however, this kind of behavior remains on a political level. Day-to-day ethnic relations are usually diplomatic and harmonious as most South Sudanese seek peace. Indeed, South Sudanese people living in other countries are commonly open and united across ethnic backgrounds. People may share their tribe’s songs and dances with other South Sudanese ethnicities to build broader community spirit and solidarity. It is also worth noting that the younger generation is usually detached from the conflict and has become instrumental in developing a united image of the South Sudanese community.

Human security, migrants, immigration/emigration, medical and hygiene, human rights, crime, food/water security. According to the UNHCR about 2.236.176 is the number of refugees and asylum-seekers from South Sudan updated until January 31, 2020​​​​​​​, in neighboring countries since the current conflict began in December 2013. According to the CIA, another 1.96 million South Sudanese are internally displaced as of August 2017. Despite South Sudan’s instability and lack of infrastructure and social services, more than 240,000 people have fled to South Sudan to escape fighting in Sudan.

In parallel, according to the USAID an estimated 7.2 million people (more than 60 percent of the population) need humanitarian assistance, 4.5 million urgently need food assistance, and 1.3 million children are acutely malnourished, the highest number recorded since independence.  Atrocities and widespread attacks on civilians, including rampant sexual violence, have defined the conflict.  South Sudanese have been deeply affected by exposure to traumatic events and economic devastation.

The Government of South Sudan signed agreements in March 2012 and August 2015 that included the demobilization of all child soldiers within the armed forces and opposition, but the recruitment of child soldiers by the warring parties continues; as of the end of 2018, UNICEF estimated that more than 19,000 child soldiers had been used in the country’s civil war since it began in December 2013 (2018).

Refugees from South Sudan – Total (Copyright – UNHCR)
(Copyright – UNCHR)

Human Rights. According to the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Human rights abuses during the civil war demonstrated that the parties on all sides of the conflict chose to inflict horrific harm on hundreds of thousands of innocent people who they associated with their enemies. One recent study estimated that 382,000 people died as a direct and indirect result of the conflict, while tens of thousands of people have been subjected to sexual violence, including brutal cases of rape, sexual mutilation, and torture. The sheer scale of the violence – half of the 382,000 people died directly from acts of violence – puts into perspective any claims about protection in this study. Many South Sudanese see the lack of accountability for these serious crimes as a major impediment to long-term stability in the country and a potential trigger for future violence.

In this context, the human rights monitoring and reporting work of UNMISS has publicly documented some of the more egregious patterns of abusive behavior by the parties to the conflict, reports which have been used by UN leadership to advocate for greater restraint by the parties. High visibility reports that identify the groups responsible for systematic or widespread abuses become part of the public discourse in South Sudan, and are certainly used as political tools to demand restraint by the parties to the conflict. The direct impact of the human rights work of the Mission on rates of human rights violations is extremely difficult to assess, though it is worth noting the perception within and outside the Mission that the reports over the past two years have been more direct in their assessments of abuses than in previous years.

Famine Conditions. Food security is a major concern in South Sudan, with an estimated 7 million people being food insecure, 2 million people in need of emergency food aid, nearly a million children under 5 being malnourished, and over 20,000 children in acute famine condition according to the Secretary General report on conditions as of September 2019. Flooding and poor road conditions have also made it difficult for farmers to produce food and distribute it to markets throughout the country.

Protection of Civilians. The September 2019 report of the Secretary General outlines numerous PoC challenges by region. Despite the challenges below, the report states that violence is contained within certain localities.[i]

  • Greater Upper Nile – Road attacks in Unity remain a threat, and armed men and young people who are engaging in such attacks.
  • Greater Equatoria – Insecurity due to conflict with the National Salvation Front (NSF), including fighting in Payai and outside Lobonok, as well as cross border recruitment from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda. Further incidents have occurred due to SPLA and SPLA-IO clashes.
  • Greater Bahr el-Ghazal – Cattle raiding and inter-communal conflict continue to pose a threat, and clashes between the South Sudan United Front and the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SPDF). Resistance to disarmament is also causing clashes between civilians and the government.

In response to these threats, the Secretary General’s report stated that UNMISS deployed pre-emptive patrols to project presence and deter violence, increased patrols in hotspots and established a semi-permanent presence where conflict is ongoing. These actions were taken in conjunction with efforts to improve situational awareness through community engagement and human rights monitoring.

Like other peacekeeping contexts where maintaining security at the national level is a challenge, such as the UN Mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA), facilitating local peace agreements is leading to a de-escalation of violence. The same is occurring in South Sudan. In 2019, UNMISS held a tri-state peace conference between Wau, Tonj, and Gogrial which resulted in local ceasefires that have reduced violence and led to the restoration of property. These promising practices should be encouraged and replicated in other high-risk locations.

PoC Sites. UNMISS provides protection to 180,366 people sheltering in proximity to UN bases. These are known as “PoC sites” which are situated in Juba, Bor, Bentiu, Malakal and Wau. The largest of the sites is Bentiu, where 103,424 people reside. 

The mission has had difficulty ensuring the civilian nature of the sites, as weapons are occasionally smuggled within them due to inadequate fencing and perimeter security. However, regular cordon and search operations and meetings with community leaders have led to greater safety within the sites. 

While the mission would like to reduce number of people sheltering near UN bases, interviews of IDPs conducted by Refugees International have revealed concerns that their safety would be compromised unless they return to an ethnically homogenous area. This has caused some concern within humanitarian agencies that are prepared to support returns but do not want to further ethnic divisions. 

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA). In 2019, the mission reported 9 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse; 7 of which concerned exploitative relationships by civilian and military personnel, and 2 rape cases that included paternity claims.[ii] The majority of allegations concerned national staff, however two cases involved personnel from Nigeria and Ghana. 

Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC). The Government of South Sudan ratified the UN optional Protocol on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. However, gaps in implementation remain, as evidenced by the ongoing recruitment of young boys by the National Salvation Front, and in the Greater Equatoria region as well as the number of recruited children who need to be released from detention according to mission reports. 

The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) is working with the mission and the Sudan People’s Defense Force (SPDF) on the verification of the age of young men recruited into service, to ensure that boys below the age of 18 are not conscripted. The updated UNMISS mandate highlighted that 2.2 million children in South Sudan are out of school, which further contributes to their vulnerability to exploitation, abuse, and forced recruitment.

Women, Peace and Security

Political Participation. The March 2019 renewal of the UNMISS mandate acknowledges impediments to the full implementation of WPS and calls for a renewed commitment to women’s “empowerment, participation, and human rights, concerted leadership, consistent information and action, and support, to build women’s engagement in all levels of decision-making, and through ensuring that the full and meaningful participation and involvement of women in all spheres and levels of political leadership, the peace process, and pre-transitional and transitional government.”[iii] The mandate further welcomes the decision to implement a quota of 35% female participation in the transitional government and encourages officials to realize this goal. UNMISS has a network of gender affairs officers in all field offices that can provide support to women seeking greater participation in the peacebuilding process.

Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV). Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) remains unusually high in South Sudan and is often associated with the conflict or cattle raids. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as CARE are focusing their prevention efforts on engaging local male leaders, particularly clan and religious leaders, to reduce acceptance of SGBV as part of inter-communal violence and reprisals for the confiscation of property, such as cattle raids. 

The rape of young girls by SPLA-IO forces has been documented by the mission, and within the South Sudan People’s Defense Force. Individual cases of sexual violence were also perpetrated by other armed actors. In June 2019, Riek Machar endorsed an action plan against CRSV on behalf of the SPLA-IO, which is in addition to a communique he sent to SPLA-IO commanders in 2014. The action plan agrees that opposition forces will be held accountable for their actions by a civilian court. In July 2019, Machar also sent a communique for forces in Western Equatoria to release girls held against their will on opposition bases.

The mission has worked to reduce incidents of sexual violence within the PoC sites by training police on SGBV investigations and informing women of ways to report incidents to the police. UNMISS is also working with the UN Development Program (UNDP) to expand mobile courts in regions with a high backlog of cases for SGBV, including in Rumbeck and Juba. The mission is also working on other legal and judicial reforms to equip the courts and judges to further prosecute crimes of a sexual nature.

[i] United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in South Sudan, 10 September 2019 (S/2019/722)

[ii] For more information, see the UN database on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA),

[iii]Ibid, UNSCR 2459.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Water Security. According to the African Development Bank Group, after decades of war, access to water supply and sanitation services is severely constrained. Only 27% of the population has access to improved water supplies, whereas the average for the comparator countries is about 68%. In the case of sanitation services, only 16% of the population has access to improved sanitation. In the case of the comparator countries, access ranges from 6% for Eritrea to 59% for Malawi. Many of the water points recorded in the national database are not operational. One-third of the population still relies on surface water as its main source. Access to piped water is practically non-existent, and more than 60% of the population relies on wells and boreholes for access to water. Three-quarters of the population does not have access to any type of sanitation facility.​​​​​​​

Other sources:


These products are the results of academic research and intended for general information and awareness only. They include the best information publicly available at the time of publication. Routine efforts are made to update the materials; however, readers are encouraged to check the specific mission sites at or