By Aweng Francis, James Huria and Stella Madete, Oxfam in South Sudan
“Women are the most affected during times of war and that is why we need to speak openly about peace” — Mary and Rebecca Athou, women leaders in Minkaman.
“Being a woman in South Sudan means having the ability to make your own choices, and the means to take care of yourself and provide for your family,” says Mary, a leader of a women’s group in Mingkaman. A native of Bor, she was forced to relocate to Mingkaman camp for displaced people camp when fighting erupted in her hometown, painfully leaving behind a successful business and farm. “This has changed because of the conflict. We have no shops and no land to farm, meaning that we have no income. We no longer had the ability or freedom to do what we want to do to support the community and ourselves. We had to find other ways to survive.”
Mary and Rebecca are women leaders in Mingkaman. Their role allows them to connect with women of all ages and bring them together to discuss solutions to issues that affect them as a result of the changing circumstances.
“We walk around the camp every day visiting women in their homes to find out how they are. We also come together to know each other, and see how we can grow despite the situations we find ourselves in,” says Rebecca, born and raised in Mingkaman, and helping many women who were displaced from Bor to find their place in her hometown. “This is not the first time that we have been in conflict, so we know what we need to do to survive. When we meet, I make sure that every woman knows that we need to always support each other, and that there is still a reason to be hopeful for a better future.” After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, ending decades of war that claimed thousands of lives, many thought that no one else would be lost to this kind of violence. The pain of the civil war that broke out two years later is still fresh in the minds of many of the women who Mary and Rebecca talk to. Embers of hope are quickly burning out, and the light guiding the way to forgiveness and reconciliation is fading.
“When we talk, I use myself as an example. I always speak about peace and forgiveness, so when I urge them to do the same, they know I truly believe it,” says Mary. “Women are the most affected during times of war and that is why we need to speak openly about peace. We must shout that we are tired of the fighting. We’re tired of losing our children. Too many generations have suffered. It is time for it to stop.”
1.“It is a privilege to be a woman” — Ayan James, Rumbek.
“It is a privilege to be a woman. People think that we are weak and overlook us. But they are wrong; we are strong. Many of us miss out because when we grow to sixteen, we are forced to marry. Girls in South Sudan need to go to school first and it should start with free education. For those who did not get a chance to go to school, I encourage them to join as adults. It’s never too late to learn.”
“The world is a better place when women participate actively in it” — John Malual, Rumbek.
John Malual is a teacher in Wulu Couty, Rumbek. He has been teaching for many years and takes his responsibility as a moulder of young minds seriously. His students, both male and female, look up to him, and what he chooses to teach will resonate with them for the rest of their lives.
“I make sure that I teach my students the importance of gender equality and how it leads to a better life for everyone. Outside of class, I speak openly about early marriage and gender based violence, why it must end and how we can work together to stop it. Solving issues among us, in the community, is the best way to bring change.”
In his teaching, John does not leave out his daughter. In her, he sees the future of South Sudan, and makes sure he creates an environment where she knows that she is important.
“I tell my daughter that she is strong. I encourage her to work hard in school because the world is changing every day and education is the key to surviving in it. The world is a better place when women are given the chance to participate actively in it.”
“Being a woman is unique. We carry life in us and bring it to the world” — Elizabeth Biluay Kuach, Lankien, Jonglei State.
“All women have to stand still, be resilient and overcome challenges. One day they will be like others,” says Elizabeth Biluay Kuach.
Elizabeth Biluay Kuach is the deputy chairwoman of the Lankien Women’s Union, a duty she fulfils with passion and pride. Born and raised in the small town of Lankien in Nyirol County, she is well versed on the issues that plague women in her hometown in peaceful times and more recently during conflict. As a strong advocate for women’s rights, Elizabeth is well known for her unwavering determination to level the playing field and create opportunities for women to exercise their rights as equal members of society. Elizabeth is a proud mother of six children — three boys and three girls. The three boys go to school in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, while the three girls were caught up in the December 2013 violence in Juba and brought back to Lankien for safety. Here are Elizabeth’s thoughts as a proponent of gender equality:
“Being a woman is unique. We carry life in us and bring it to the world. In the most difficult situations, you will find a woman giving birth and taking care of her children. We are the only ones with the strength to do that.”
“When there is no food, we go out and gather wild foods to feed our families. We risk our lives, walking out to the fields to cut grass and make some money. During food distributions, women sit under the hot sun, waiting for their turn, and then carry the big bags of food on their heads for long distances, because it is taboo for men to do so. Yes, men look after the cows, but in times of need, they won’t sell them to support the family.”
“Despite this, and as important as women are in society, we are still left out. In this community, we cannot inherit anything from our family. Instead, someone else can inherit us when our husbands die. We are not allowed to hold leadership positions, and education is restricted for girls in favour of boys. Yet in times of peace, we are the ones calling for peace, crying to be reunited with our children. But our voices are ignored.”
“The Lankien Women’s Union was very strong before the crisis. We came together with ideas and received assistance to carry them out. I was very close to the commissioner because we met often to discuss the Union and lobby for action and assistance from the government. He shared our ideas and supported our work. We were vibrant and energetic, and made things happen. Now, because of the crisis, things in the Union have slowed down.”
“I believe that when we’re united, we overcome challenges. Women must stand tall and be strong. One day, we will achieve our goals. Young women, and men, want to work and build the country, and we are open to any opportunity for empowerment.”
“Our value cannot be measured by cows or money, we are worth much more” — Sunday Achan, Wulu County, Rumbek.
“Being a woman is a beautiful thing. We are the mothers of a nation. Without us, the world would not exist. We are powerful, but some of us need to be reminded of that. Many women come to me with ideas to improve their lives, but most don’t have the means to do so. When I can, I give advice, and sometimes money, to help them realise their dreams. Some have started businesses and are better off now. All women need is the opportunity, and we rise.” “I encourage every woman to make sure that her voice is heard. A woman’s life is important. We have rights and they need to be met. Our value cannot be measured by cows or money, we are worth much more.”
- “There is no rest for a woman” — Janet Awut, Wulu County, Rumbek
“It is not easy to be a woman. Sometimes it is hard to find the beauty in being a woman in South Sudan. We have no time to do anything else but work. I work in the restaurant, serve my customers, and when I go home, I work — for the family. There is no rest for a woman. Everyone relies on us. Women work harder that anyone else, and as we celebrate that today, we should not forget to honour their work.”
- “Women need the power to make decisions” — Mary Lali, Wulu County, Rumbek.
“Women need the power to make decisions. Decisions on our future, and that of our children, should not only fall on to a man. If women are given the opportunity to work, they can contribute to the family income, and ease the burden on the man. If we have gardens, we have the choice of what to grow, and how to keep our family healthy.”
- “In conflict a woman is both the man and the woman, so she is everything.” — Nyareath, Akobo
“In conflict, a woman holds two positions in the family. She is the man and the woman, so she is everything. It is important to empower women and to give them a chance to earn an income. It gives us the means to take care of our children and our homes. My husband left when the conflict started, so it is up to me to take care of everyone. When this job ends, I will sell firewood or find another way to make money. I am a woman; I will do everything to make it work.”