South Sudan

Women and the Future of South Sudan: Local Insights for Building Inclusive Constituencies for Peace




South Sudan has been in a protracted state of conflict since the fallout between political rivals President Salva Kiir and his former Deputy Riek Machar sparked civil war and reignited violence between tribal groups across the country in 2013. Over 2 million people have fled the country as refugees since then, over 80% of whom are women and children. Many areas of the country are severely food insecure and at high risk of famine. The political and national conflict dynamics have also activated pre-existing familial and tribal tensions, which have come to the fore with communities struggling over access to resources due to food insecurity and economic instability. The persistence of conflict has normalized violence among South Sudanese citizens: from 2015-2017 there was a 15% increase in the number of South Sudanese who believed violence against another tribe was acceptable. Search for Common Ground’s research also found that the most prominent determinant of a South Sudanese person’s experience with conflict is location. This means that the manifestation of conflict are different across the country and the perceptions and attitudes of South Sudanese about peace and conflict in different areas also differs. Thus, efforts to mitigate violence must be context-specific and respond to conflict drivers in the community. National dynamics have ignited tribal divisions and pushed local conflicts between divided groups to quickly escalate and cycle into violence.

Since 2013, a series of ceasefires and tenuous peace arrangements at the national level have attempted to quell the violence and promote stability; despite these efforts, however, intercommunal conflict and tensions remain high. At the time of writing, negotiations are ongoing both under the official auspices of Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and an agreement has been signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar mediated by Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan, and attended by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. While these discussions and the arrangement have spurred some hope among South Sudanese looking for a political resolution of the conflict, the national conflict has affected all of South Sudan’s communities, and a political resolution is necessary but insufficient to put the country on a clear path to peace and stability. While the South Sudanese politicians who contribute to many of the national conflict dynamics discuss arrangements for the future of South Sudan at the national and international level, the people of South Sudan are facing violence in their communities emerging from everyday challenges, heightened by an environment of impunity, instability, and indignation nationally.

Women are intricately linked to and are part of many of the drivers and manifestations of communal conflict in South Sudan. Not only are women and children more likely to be victims of violence, but issues closely related to women are among the most prominent drivers of inter-communal violence in the country today, such as cattle raiding to pay for high dowries, land disputes around inheritance laws that prohibit the passage of land to women, and tensions surrounding marriage. Academics and practitioners often assume that because women face such severe consequences of conflict, they are natural advocates for peace. However, recent research shows that women in South Sudan are just as likely as men to believe that violence is a valid way to solve conflicts. Despite this, women remain under-represented and removed from peacebuilding efforts and peace processes at the community level, and this lack of engagement demonstrates a clear failure to recognize their roles in contributing to violence and peace.

Holistic peace in South Sudan necessitates inclusive and multi-track engagement at the national and sub-national levels. Conflict resolution initiatives need to both respond to local drivers of conflict and incorporate these drivers and solutions to address them into national level peace processes. As the international community formulates new ways to prevent violence and protect civilians, these interventions should be context-specific and involve all stakeholders to the conflict, including women. Without incorporating women into local and national peacebuilding efforts, the attitudes and actions of nearly half the population will remain unaddressed, undermining the potential for long-term stability. To build a constituency for peace at the local level in South Sudan, international and domestic efforts must involve men and women in initiatives to transform knowledge, attitudes, skills and behavior to foster non-violence, advance social cohesion and reconciliation across dividing lines, and promote peace. Women’s role in violence and in promoting peace cannot be ignored.

This policy paper highlights opportunities to engage women at the local level to address community conflict issues, promote peace, and empower women as agents of change in South Sudan. It follows the analysis and findings of Search for Common Ground’s November 2017 Building a Constituency for Peace in South Sudan, which examined annual data on conflict perceptions and attitudes collected over a four-year span illuminate various opportunities for actors interested in peace to constructively engage. This locally conducted research leverages experiences and expertise from South Sudanese women, as well as analysis and recommendations from South Sudanese practitioners and scholars working to build peace in the country.