Women's Issues

Women of South Sudan: THE Unifying Force for Development

Courtesy Women Are Core; Twitter: @womenarecore

South Sudanwomen
A woman braids the hair of another woman in the Gendrassa refugee camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State. Photo by Paul Jeffrey

During the planning of DUNIA Magazine/Women Are Core 3K Run/Walk for the women of South Sudan taking place this September, we have often invited the brave women of the world’s newest country – South Sudan, to speak to us about the challenges they face. In helping raise awareness, our goal has been to have the South Sudanese tell their stories so that we can all get to know them as they truly are.

The Republic of South Sudan, located in the northern central part of Africa is bordered by six countries – Republic of the Sudan to the north, Ethiopia to the east, Kenya to the southeast, Uganda to the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southwest, and the Central African Republic to the west. Rich in oil, South Sudan is also listed as one of the world’s poorest countries mainly due to decades of civil war. After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, conflict again engulfed the country in December 2013.

The beautiful women of this young nation are however truly remarkable in their strength and tenacity. There is alot more to them than the pitiful photos of suffering children, and helpless men and women that are all too common in the media these days. Yes, there is war, there is poverty, but there is also hope, resolve and love for country in a people demanding better.

The following information was shared with us by South Sudanese ladies during a Women Are Core conference call we had on July 22, 2014. Editing is very minimal in order to deliver the message in it’s undiluted form.

A new mindset. Women are suffering due to war and lack of security. When the men are being killed, the women become insecure as there’s no one to protect them. Respect exists amongst members of the South Sudanese community, what is needed is being able to channel energy into creating positive things in the community. Lack of love and support of each other, is hindering not only women, but the whole continent from moving forward. “We need to treat each other better,” says Nancy.

Women want to be heard. Half of the country is now living in camps and the women are trying to feed their kids. Women worry about their kids, their husbands, everybody else. The women are working hard to help, they are urging government officials to hear them – “they want those in leadership positions to change up their minds and start thinking about the people, the country, not personal gains and interests. They are trying to be heard. In the perfect world, government listens to the people. It is yet to happen in South Sudan,” we were told. However, the women are learning, determined to have their voices heard.

Black Diamonds. We learnt on the conference call that about ‘67% of the population of South Sudan are women and only about 3% are educated’. What are their options? Many young South Sudanese girls are turning to prostitution in neighboring cities such as Nairobi (Kenya). They are known as the black diamonds. The percentage of these young girls has gone from some 15%-25%, rising to close to 45% … these are minimum numbers, we are told. “It’s such a shameful statistic, and needs to be dealt with,” says Nancy. (radiotamazuj: Juba: Poverty pushes women and girls into prostitution)

Subjected to the unpleasant. The women of South Sudan on the conference call are quick to point out that their struggles as women are no different from those of women in other African countries. Natalina (South Sudanese residing in the U.S.) who had just returned from a visit to South Sudan explained that the reason why about 65% of the country is made up of women is because men have been killed during many years of civil war. “When there’s war, the woman suffers most. She is the one left behind to take care of the children, the household, she is used as a pawn of war by being raped, and is subjected other unpleasant things.”

Survivors. South Sudanese women like other African women are strong and quite resilient. “They do what they have to do to take care of their children, surviving in rudimentary ways. Some do small businesses such as selling food or tea on the side of the streets, some brew alcohol and that’s how they make money,” says Natalina.

One step forward, several steps backwards. “When independence happened, women felt encouraged, empowered because now they had a country and could enforce certain laws. Since we have a president who is always looking out for women’s rights, he made it into law that at least 25% of the government would be women. It is now up to 16% and could go up to 30%,” we learnt. Since war broke out again in December, things have fallen backwards. Most of the women are now living in refugee camps.

Determined. Natalina was quick to add that things are “not all together bleak”. Most of the women are very encouraged – they want attend school; they are proud of their progress and they are focused on progress. “Government offices headed by female ministers are the most function-able,” she says. We learned that female leaders are knowledgeable, well-educated and they are actively making a difference. The Ministry of Labor was run by a woman, it was well structured. The Minister of Agriculture is a woman – she is powerful and very eloquent. Women doctors are working hard, trying to build clinics, as the rate of women dying from childbirth is at its highest now [due to ongoing conflict]. The president recently opened 2 clinics in different states to cater to women in childbirth because the women pushed for it.

Not victims. The women of South Sudan are nowhere close to seeing themselves as victims, they are encouraged, fighting hard to be included so as to effect change. “Leadership by women is much needed because women don’t turn to guns; they sit down and talk about issues. Men want to show power by using guns and shooting each other … what happens? Lives are lost,” says Natalina.

Moving forward. There’s a lot of work to be done. The real unifying force for development in South Sudan are the women. When asked, the women say, “we want peace, we want healing, we don’t want our kids to die, we want our country to be developed, we want hospitals, we want schools, and food.”

Organizations and local groups of South Sudanese women are asking to be included in ongoing peace negotiations. This will enable the country to move forward faster.

Our hope at DUNIA Magazine is that community leaders, activists, human rights groups and world leaders will focus on empowering the women of South Sudan to rise and stand strong in moving their country forward.

write-up by Lema Abeng-Nsah (Twitter: @LemaNsah)

More about the upcoming Run/Walk: www.womenarecore.org

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