“I grew up trying to keep myself safe amid raging conflict. War has taken a lot from me, including my parents, but it couldn’t kill my spirit,” says 28-year-old Sandra Nyabil.
Sandra’s hometown Bentiu was one of the hotspots when civil war broke out in South Sudan. Many of her relatives were killed and she, herself, was orphaned. But this indomitable young woman wouldn’t accept defeat and decided to educate herself against all odds.
“I had no relatives who could take care of my school bills. I was determined, however, that I would do whatever it takes to obtain a degree,” reveals Sandra. And thus, began a long struggle trying to obtain scholarships via international funding while supplementing her income by undertaking various small business ventures in a country ridden with violence.
Seven years later with a ceasefire agreement and a peace deal in place, political conflict has greatly reduced in South Sudan with many displaced people finally returning to their original homes. Sandra is one of them and, what’s more, she is armed with a bachelor’s degree in public administration.
“I, and many women across the country, are committed to a peaceful, prosperous future for our nation,” she avers, speaking at a forum jointly organized by UNMISS, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Institute of Leadership, University of Juba, to foster dialogue between women across the Unity region of South Sudan on achieving 35 per cent representation at all levels of governance and decision-making as stipulated in the Revitalized Peace Agreement signed by parties to the conflict in 2018.
“We are ready, professionally and personally, to help rebuild this country and our places of origin,” continues Sandra. “In the past, women had no place in decision-making within our families, our communities and our states. But it’s time for our chance; like men, we can be astute and committed social actors and hold offices of political power.”
Sandra’s words were echoed by all 31 women—a diverse who took part in the discussions.
“These women are brave and committed to working towards a brighter tomorrow for South Sudan,” states Brianna Egri, a professor from University of Juba who facilitated some of the interactive sessions. “They are equipped with skills and are exactly what Bentiu needs to support the peace process and ensure development,” she adds.
Participants called upon the newly appointed Governor of Unity state to speedily ensure women constitute 35 per cent of the state’s cabinet. “Bentiu has a lot of talented women. Our goal is to make sure their voices are heard and considered so that our state cabinet is highly qualified as well as represents everybody,” says Elizabeth Tierit, leader of the Bentiu Women’s Union, who also expressed the overall consensus from the group—face time with the Governor to ensure qualified female candidates receive due consideration for political office.
Other key points that emerged from the three-day forum—skill-building opportunities benefiting women entrepreneurs, education for all children and foreign language lessons to enable women to participate in international platforms.
“Many of us were forcibly taken out of school when the conflict was at its peak. It’s our duty to ensure that young girls today have the access and education we were denied,” said Angelina Riak, a member of the Women’s Union. “Women and girls have equal rights in any society, and we are committed to making sure that our girls in Bentiu have every opportunity to exercise these rights without fear.”