MOSES PASI/FILIP ANDERSSON
South Sudanese girls and women in Juba celebrated International Women’s Day by highlighting their achievements and contributions to sustainable peace. As they did so, the also used a panel discussion organized by the UN to call for an end to all forms of discrimination and inequality, including gender-based violence.
“Do we qualify for employment by means of our bodies, or with academic diplomas?” Agum Daniela, a medicine student at the University of Juba, asked rhetorically, referring to what she called frequent sexual gender-based violence practiced by some male employers.
There are many reasons to embrace gender equality, and David Shearer, head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, pointed out a couple of them.
"Gender equality is a human rights issue, but it is in the interest of all of us: men and boys, women and girls. Gender inequality and discrimination against women harms us all," he said.
Mr. Shearer also spoke of the additional suffering of females in times of war and in the aftermath of systemic violence.
"It is the girls and women of this country who bear the greatest burden in conflict," the head of the peacekeeping mission said, mentioning mass displacement, forced, early or unwanted marriages, less opportunities to go to school and being targeted by violence, particularly sexual violence, as examples of their plights.
The revitalized peace agreement signed in September 2018 does, however, offer hope for women and girls in the country, as it stipulates that women are to be allotted a 35% quota of political representation at all levels of decision-making.
The importance of such female participation was also stressed by Mr. Shearer.
"Wherever I have worked in conflict zones around the world I have found that women are pivotal to ending war and building durable peace. They are the leading voices of reconciliation, of unity, of hope and progress,” he said.
He spoke at the panel discussion, organized by the United Nations in collaboration with the ministry of Gender Child and Social Welfare, with panelists from UN Women, the main political party- the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, members of parliament and other entities.
In their discussion, on the theme “Beyond 35%: Effective participation of women or just numbers?”, participants pointed out the crucial role of women in peace building and responded to questions from the audience, made up of some 120 people, predominantly female university students.
“The aim of this affirmative action is to achieve equality among women and men,” said Awel Mawien, deputy speaker of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly. She encouraged young women to aim higher than 35 per cent political representation, and to prepare themselves to compete for higher positions in both the public and the private sector.
Prescila Maper, a student at the Upper Nile University, emphasized the need for genuine peace to maximise the contribution of female participation in politics and beyond. Only with peace in place, she argued, will capable women currently staying at protection of civilian sites or in refugee camps be able to make a real impact.
“If there is total peace, educated women who are not with us here will return home. They may even empower the rest of us,” she said. “Other women who [are currently displaced] have missed educational opportunities can get some training for entrepreneurship as well.”
In an effort to promote reflections on the societal gains to be made from gender equality, the head of the UN mission in South Sudan announced a nationwide essay competition on the topic “How can women contribute to durable peace in South Sudan”. It is open to students of all secondary schools registered with the government, with 26 March being the deadline for budding writers to submit their works.