By Alexandra Murdoch
“It’s hard to be a woman here,” Dimanche, a World Food Programme (WFP) Field Monitoring Assistant, tells me. She has been counselling a group of women whose experiences bear witness to the horrific realities of the South Sudan conflict.
A few metres away, 22,000 people shelter under the protection of UN peacekeepers, aware that if they step outside of the razor wire fencing, their lives would be in instant danger.
Today, after more than two years of civil war, thousands of South Sudanese live in camps like these in the capital city of Juba – many without any idea of when they will be able to go home, or if they even have a home to go back to. It’s cramped, crowded and there is little in the way of privacy.
Yet, in one corner, a thin sheet of tarpaulin separates the harsh reality of the camp from a semi-circle of plastic chairs where women gather to talk to Dimanche. It is a safe haven – the one place they feel able to speak openly and without fear.
“Most of the women I speak to are traumatised by the things that have happened to them” explains Dimanche. “Some have lost their husbands in the conflict, many have endured physical and sexual violence and a few have even had their children abducted. I just listen and try to provide guidance.”
Dimanche visits this camp, and two others in Juba, every single day. WFP is the only source of food for people living there and it is her job to make sure it is reaching everyone.
“This is a difficult place” she admits. “In the beginning, people didn’t trust me, some even became violent. I’ve even been physically attacked in the past.” But not one to be easily defeated, Dimanche kept returning, undeterred. ”You have to empathise.” She tells me matter-of-factly. “These people are traumatised. Their mistrust comes from a place of fear. You have to put yourself in their shoes.”
Living through conflict
Wandering the camp with Dimanche, it become clear just how much she is relied on. Many stop to ask her advice, or to register a problem. The women she counsels trust her. “They call me ‘nyanhial’ which means blessing,” she says, “but I am just doing my job.”
If anyone can understand the plight of these women, it is Dimanche. Born during the Sudan war, she spent her childhood in a refugee camp in Uganda surviving on WFP food rations. “I was actually born on the way to the camp” she explains. “I got assistance from WFP as I grew up and I thought one day I want to do this work. I want to save lives and help people the way that I have been helped.”
In South Sudan, this isn’t necessarily an easy ambition to have. Patriarchal practices like early and forced marriage put women in a vulnerable position, and the current conflict has only made this worse.
More than 2.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes, over half of whom are women and both sides of the conflict have been accused of using rape and sexual violence against women as a weapon of war.
“Anything a man can do, they can do too”
Dimanche made her ambition a reality in February 2015 when she began working for WFP, helping provide lunches in schools around South Sudan. However, knowing how hard it had been for her and desperate to fight for women’s rights in her home country, she went one step further.
“I took the initiative to form girl clubs in the schools where WFP provided food,” She says. “I wanted to create activities for the girls and build their confidence. In South Sudan, many parents say ‘you should get married – don’t waste time at school.’ I wanted to teach them that having an education meant independence and strength. WFP food was the incentive for them to attend school – and while I had their attention, I wanted to make sure they knew they could take control of their futures.”
In a country where adolescent girls are three times more likely to die in childbirth than complete primary education, WFP and Dimanche achieved the near impossible: over 400 girls across seven South Sudanese counties attended her girl clubs. From football to debating, they were encouraged to learn new skills.
“I wanted them to know that they could achieve whatever they worked for. I wanted them to realise that anything a man can do, they can do too,” says Dimanche.
“Building a generation of educated women”
Having since moved to the camps to work with those displaced by the conflict, Dimanche is now certain she can still make a difference.“ Without WFP, these people would not eat - it’s such an achievement when someone is no longer hungry. Through my role at WFP, these women trust me and this puts me in a position to help them with what they have been through as well.”
I ask Dimanche what she thinks it will take for women to feel empowered, and to feel safe in South Sudan. “I think it is quite simple – they need the conflict to end. They need to feel safe, and then we need to build a generation of women that are educated. Because once that happens, they will no longer be vulnerable.”