“The work I do in this country involves listening to the tremendous pain that many women go through; sometimes it’s too hard to bear. But every day, I wake up thankful that I am making a difference,” says Margret Modong Joshua, a Gender Affairs Officer with UNMISS.
Margret, a South Sudanese herself, has been working with the United Nations for the past 14 years. After completing a Bachelor’s degree in rural extension education and development, Margret initially became a teacher. But soon enough she discovered her true calling: helping women and girls across her country receive the same opportunities that she had. Therefore, she signed up to work with the United Nations.
“When I read the UNMISS mandate and saw that protection of civilians was a core pillar, it immediately resonated with me. After all, who better than people like me, born and raised in South Sudan, to contribute to making sure our people, all our communities, especially women, youth and children, get to eventually live in peace and look forward to a prosperous future without fearing for our lives? I thought I could make an impact by protecting the very children that I was teaching,” she states.
Today, 14 years later, Margret works tirelessly as a civilian peacekeeper, advocating for the rights of women and children across South Sudan. Her responsibilities within the mission include institutional and individual capacity building for the functioning of inclusive women’s platforms and monitoring and advocacy groups through an established partnership with the Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare in Western Equatoria. Regular training workshops on leadership, gender responsiveness, women’s rights, advocacy skills and public speaking for aspiring female politicians and civil society actors, female traditional leaders and businesswomen is also part of her repertoire. “An integral part of my role as a Gender Affairs Officer is to build trust and confidence among South Sudanese women across the board by fostering dialogue, listening to their common concerns and linking them to ongoing peace processes,” says Margret.
“I am passionate about gender equality. Traditionally, in South Sudan, women have been left behind the learning curve,” she continues, noting that illiteracy rates among women and girls is very high due to a combination of cultural practices, poverty and ongoing conflict in the country.
“Discriminating against women and girls, early marriage and lack of education, and, consequently, a corresponding lack of economic empowerment has often left the women of my country powerless to have any say in day-to-day issues that impact them directly,” she avers. “We need to reduce the gap between how men and women or girls and boys are treated by their families and societies. The progress is slow, but I haven’t given up hope because I understand that even in more developed societies than ours, true gender equality, true parity is still elusive,” she adds.
Margret and others like her face numerous challenges in this uphill battle for women’s rights in South Sudan. “I don’t blame anybody for the way things are in my country. Customs and traditions are deeply entrenched here. It is difficult, for example, to change the mindset of a traditional male community leader. But to forge a peaceful way forward, we must acknowledge that women cannot be left behind. I have to say that things are improving slowly but surely. We now have many bold and dynamic community leaders who are women; they inspire me,” she states.
According to Margret, one of the most positive changes she has seen is the provision of 35 per cent participation from women in governance as per the Revitalized Peace Agreement signed in September 2018 which led her to organize seven peace fora for women where she guided them through the agreement. “I could see potential women leaders who want to take up public offices and serve the people. It was exciting and momentous for me as I brought together capable women who lobbied together for the provision,” she says.
Margret acknowledges that as a Gender Affairs Officer with UNMISS, she is also somewhat of a role model for local women. “I’m aware that some civil servants and community leaders tell girls to go to school and be like me. Some have even named their daughters after me,” she reveals with a smile. “This does make me happy and proud of the work I do.”
However, reaching out to remote communities to spread the message of women’s rights has not been an easy task. Travelling through jungles in Western Equatoria, bad road conditions, spending nights in the middle of nowhere has been an almost daily routine for Margret in the past 14 years.
“It is very difficult and scary to stay overnight in the middle nowhere in a tent with conflict ongoing. We face risks such as abduction or even death. However, as a peacekeeper, whether civilian, military or police, we all have one thing in common – the desire to serve,” she states, adding that other female peacekeepers, especially those from different countries inspire her. “They are not from South Sudan, but yet they place their lives in danger, leaving behind families and loved ones to protect my country, my people. They are the motivation I need every day, especially during this critical time with COVID-19,” avers Margret.
Speaking about the impact of the pandemic on the women of South Sudan, Margret paints a bleak picture. According to her there has been a surge in domestic and gender-based violence, early pregnancies and rape, not to mention that children are suffering due to school closures. She calls for accountability for perpetrators. “Those who commit gender-based violence, especially rape, those who impregnant underage girls should be brought to justice. Women constitute 50 per cent of any society. No country can move towards inclusive, durable peace unless women’s rights and dignities are respected and upheld.”
UNMISS salutes Margret, a beacon of hope for South Sudan.