“Our better lives do not lie in machine guns.”
Those were the words of Rachael Amuor Pach, the Jonglei Minister for Gender, Child and Social Welfare, at the conclusion of a special women’s forum for reconciliation and peace in Bor, hosted by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
The Minister gave a passionate speech for peace to 40 women who gathered together at the forum from across Greater Jonglei, including participants who are currently seeking sanctuary at the UN Protection of Civilians (POC) site in Bor.
“The reason for us being here today is to let go of what has already happened,” said the Minister. “This time we are the ones who will lead our country where we want it to go because we are the victims.”
In the wake of a five-year civil war and continuing intercommunal violence, South Sudanese are embracing a revitalized peace agreement that may pave the way for peace and prosperity.
The Deputy Chair of the Bor POC, Anna Joseph Chan, expressed concern that women are being denied the opportunity to fully participate in the peace process.
Even though women can play key roles in conflict management, peace and reconciliation, they are often excluded from the decision-making processes and their potential as agents of peace are rarely fulfilled, she said.
This sense of exclusion is motivating UNMISS to facilitate women’s forums across the country to help shift the focus from women being described as victims of war to become champions of peace.
“A woman has never taken up arms and shot another woman. We are peaceful and we need our men to reconcile. They ignore us in peace talks because of our weaknesses, thanks to UNMISS for giving us a voice,” she said.
Women in South Sudan have faced extreme insecurity and economic hardship as a result of the conflict and, despite a reduction in political violence in the wake of the peace deal, they remain highly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, displacement and other forms of psychological trauma, according to several UN reports.
“Women are being killed by both parties, why are they killing us? When we fall into the hands of government forces, they rape and kill us and when we fall in the hands of rebel forces they do the same. Where do we belong?” Chan said.
The women leaders at the forum represented a variety of groups, including youth unions, women’s associations, peace commissions, churches as well as the Ministry of Gender and Chamber of Commerce.
Youth Union representative, Amuor Tabitha, called for comprehensive disarmament during and after the peace implementation.
“The arms that our men have are not used to protect us. They are more harmful, and I believe disarming them will make women and their children feel safer,” she said.
Amuor also warned that: “if women take up arms, like the same way men are fighting, we shall not have a country.”
Jonglei Information Minister, Atong Kuol Manyang, said women had the courage needed to bring durable peace to the country and encouraged those living in the POC to work closely with their counterparts living in Bor town.
“We know how the war started. It was started mainly by men, but the women will fix it,” Manyang said. “And what is making me even more happy is the fact that we have been joined by our sisters from the POC in our mission for peace.”
Her comments were echoed by Anna Joseph Chan from the POC who said women everywhere want the peace agreement implemented in spirit and letter.
“We know that President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar signed the peace agreement. We are appealing to them to implement it for our sake,” said Anna Joseph Chan.
“We are displaced and refugees. We have been in POC since the war started. We are there because we need protection. Neither party will protect us but if Kiir and Riek are united, we shall be protected.”
Another POC resident, Rabecca Nyalony, emphasized the need for shared leadership for a peaceful South Sudan.
“My message to President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Dr. Riek Machar is to let them take our country to peace and prosperity. Let them rule South Sudan together as 10 states not 25 or 30 states,” she said.
“We need peace because we have been protected for the last six years by UNMISS. But what if they are gone? We don’t want people to fight again,” she stressed.