Women for Women International-Sudan Aid 600 Internally Displaced People Following Tribal Conflicts in Rumbek East
Violent tribal clashes between the Dinka Agar of Rumbek East County and the Jur Beli of Wulu County in May and June caused 600 people to flee to Makernhoum in Lakes State, where WfWI-Sudan's CIFI farm is located. The WfWI-Sudan staff and participants took the lead in assisting the hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs) by enrolling some of the women in the WfWI-Sudan program and buying food and clothing for the others out of their own pockets.
Following a welcomed three-month lull in tribal violence in Lakes State, South Sudan, clashes between the Dinka Agar of Rumbek East County and the Jur Beli tribe of Wulu County resumed on May 28th, unleashing a wave of attacks that destabilized the region for a month. As of June 28, the UN reported that the violence had caused the forced displacement of 8,214 in Rumbek and Cueibet in South Sudan, where Women for Women International-Sudan is housed. Women for Women International-Sudan (WfWI-Sudan) has helped thousands of women since its inception in 2007 through its program of support to women survivors of war; but on June 3rd, WfWI-Sudan expanded its humanitarian reach to support some 600 internally displaced persons stranded at the organization’s farm in Makernhoum.
Far from the reaches of the humanitarian crisis that ravages Darfur, Dinka and Wulu rivalries run deep and threaten the security of Lakes State in South Sudan where WfWI-Sudan’s offices are located. Lakes State is one of the most dangerous of the ten states in southern Sudan, where internal clashes threatened the safety of the Sudan chapter’s staff and participants earlier this year during a three month-long conflict that ended in March. Such intra-state tensions are especially disruptive given their lasting effects on the greater population – the violence not only threatens the lives of Lakes State residents, but also displaces thousands and causes the forced closure of schools and medical facilities. The internally displaced are usually women and children, often forced into vulnerable situations with no food, water, or shelter as their villages and households are destroyed. The clashes of early 2009 displaced at least 414 people according to WfWI-Sudan.
When the women of the CIFI farm arrived for work on June 3rd, they saw what one WfWI-Sudan staff member described as a “sea of humanity…. They were desperately in need of water, food, cooking utensils, clothes, blankets, medical services...” The WfWI-Sudan driver rushed back to town to inform the local authorities and the WfWI-Sudan office of the situation.
As one of the WfWI-Sudan staff members told us, when “the same information reached the local state authorities, …they were largely unable to do anything about it. As soon as this information reached us in our offices in Rumbek town, the staff rushed to the site and estimate the gravity of the situation. It was a total human catastrophe and there was nobody on site to help.” WfWI-Sudan’s resources are meager and stretched thin as it is. To take on the responsibility of assisting 600 internally displaced people (IDPs) was a major task, one not even the local state government was capable of addressing. Lacking resources, infrastructure, and government autonomy, the local authorities are frequently unprepared to address the humanitarian crises that arise after conflicts in the region. Despite this, the WfWI-Sudan staff and participants made the collective decision to take the lead in assisting the 600 IDPs stranded in Makernhoum. They were able to enroll some of the displaced women as WfWI-Sudan participants; for others, the staff and participants pooled resources out of their own pockets to purchase 80 bags of sorghum, six bags of used clothes and ten plastic sheets. They also opened the gate to the farm to allow them access to the water well. Staff took the initiative to contact local UN office and the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission to assist the displaced. Happily, the UN agencies responded swiftly and were able to provide additional food and medical services with their ample resources.
Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of this exercise in humanitarian assistance was the relationship the participants in the WfWI-Sudan program forged with the women IDPs. Once stranded themselves, the women of WfWI-Sudan were now in a position to help other survivors of conflict. They welcomed them to the farm and shared with them their stories of Women for Women International. “Our women welcomed [all of the] IDP women to the farm, telling them success of the program and [that] it is for [all of the] women of Sudan, not only Rumbek women…” one staff member told of the experience.
With their sponsorship funds and income from the farm, the women donated money to the cause of providing the IDPs necessary commodities like food and clothing; with the knowledge they gained from their training, the women were able to spread the word of the WfWI-Sudan program and even help to enroll some of the internally displaced women in need of assistance. The farm they own provided water and shelter for the 600-some stranded IDPs.
Peace has returned to the Lakes State region, the Agar-Jur Beli conflict has been quelled for now. “Now the place is calm,” one WfWI-Sudan staff member told us, “and the government has come in to collect the guns from the local inhabitants and warned them sternly that the government will no longer tolerate any other form of violence.” But the outbreak in attacks that began on May 28th proved worse than the last, killing and displacing many more people and causing health services and schools in the area to close. The current lull in violence feels fragile to the WfWI-Sudan staff and participants who have seen resurgences in tribal conflicts occur time and again.
At a moment of extreme need, the women of WfWI-Sudan assumed responsibility for a humanitarian crisis outside the reach of the local authorities. Their generosity, enthusiasm, and skillfulness ensured the survival of the internally displaced at Makernhoum and ensured that their immediate needs were met. The assistance provided by WfWI-Sudan is a testament what can be accomplished in a nation torn by conflict when women are empowered with the tools to lift themselves and fellow survivors of conflict out of poverty and instability. As the participants of WfWI-Sudan showed through their leadership, indeed stronger women build stronger nations.Close
These new pictures were taken by Judithe Registre, our Sudan Country Director, and show women in the program getting vital training in income generation, sanitation, right awareness and literacy.
The numbers from the Sudan are startling. Nearly 40 years of civil war... at least 2 million lives lost... 4 million uprooted from their homes... over 700,000 in refugee camps. But because of people like you, Women for Women International is providing a powerful opportunity for peace, stability and growth to women who have only known violence.
You can help the women of the Sudan move from victim... to survivor... to active citizen in a few simple steps:
- Share these photos with a friend, and let them know about the important work being done in the Sudan.
- Become a sponsor and share a one to one connection with a woman in the Sudan.
- Make a donation to support the important work Women for Women International does daily.
By taking one of these important steps, it will expand our global community - and give more women the opportunity to rebuild after war.Close
Women for Women International is launching operations in southern Sudan, an area almost entirely without basic infrastructure, such as roads, health facilities or schools. It is expected that more than two million displaced Sudanese people will return to southern Sudan in the coming months. The media and international community have focused much of their attention on Darfur. However, that region is only one piece of a complex puzzle and it appears that much of the world has very little understanding of the devastating reality beyond Darfur. Women for Women International sent an assessment team to Sudan in July 2005 to evaluate the feasibility of helping the country's socially excluded women rebuild their lives, families and communities after conflict. What began as a two-week trip has turned into a long-term commitment to working in southern Sudan. We witnessed Sudan's harsh realities firsthand. We found a vast country with a tangled and complex history of conflictÑa history that you can see on the faces of the Sudanese people.
We conducted extensive interviews with women at the grassroots level and met with representatives from the government and community based organizations (CBOs). We confirmed reports that women are bearing the brunt of the horror, suffering through unthinkable acts of gender-based violence and sexual slavery, trying to manage survival for them and their families in what were often subhuman living conditions. Amid the horror stories, we also found hope. We discovered a strong civil society and an organized women’s movement with clear optimism for the future of Sudan and keen insight into what is needed to make those hopes a reality. If the international community plans to assist with the country’s reconstruction in any meaningful way, it must seek the wisdom and counsel of Sudanese women.
History of Conflict
Sudan gained its independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956. It has spent most of the years since then embroiled in what has been called “one of Africa’s longest running civil wars.” A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January 2005, which achieved a fragile peace between rebel forces in southern Sudan and the government in Khartoum, but the protracted violence and insecurity have devastated Sudan’s infrastructure and the country currently ranks near the bottom of nearly all development indices. What makes the situation in Sudan so complex is that there are currently three separate, highly volatile situations in different parts of the country. While there are hopes that the CPA will help to stabilize the country as a whole, it only directly addresses the situation in the South. Sudan’s Darfur region is in the western part of the country, near the border with Chad. In 2004, the United States government issued a statement saying that violence in Darfur had risen to the level of genocide.4 The United Nations is expected to dispatch a contingent of peacekeepers to the Darfur region to supplement existing forces from the African Union. While the international community focuses on Darfur, Sudanese people in other parts of the country are trying to maintain the fragile peace as they begin rebuilding their country.
Issues and Needs Identified by Sudanese Women
The following issues are those most frequently mentioned by the women we interviewed as being critical to the country’s future: income generation and employment opportunities for women; girls’ education and illiteracy among women; access to resources, including water, electricity, housing and jobs; customary and family laws regarding early marriage, wife inheritance, ghost marriage and criminal ramifications of adultery, polygamy and divorce rights; gender-based violence; and women’s health, including HIV/AIDS, female genital cutting, reproductive health and maternal and infant mortality and morbidity.
We spoke with Sudanese women’s organizations that are deeply committed to these issues. These organizations are also in dire need of resources and support to build and sustain their organizational capacities. They identified the following primary needs: expand the reach and resources of
CBOs through international partnerships; train women leaders in advocacy, coalition-building strategies and negotiation skills; launch a national advocacy program about the importance of including women in reconstruction and transitional development agendas at the local, regional and national levels; promote organizational and staff development with tools and financial resources that improve institutional capacity.
A Window of Opportunity
A critical window of opportunity exists for women’s participation in the development and reconstruction of Sudan. During our assessment, we uncovered both a great need and a great desire for our services and resources, particularly in southern Sudan. Not only has the protracted civil war destroyed any semblance of infrastructure, but the area has some of the highest female illiteracy and malnutrition rates in the world. Over the last several months, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees have begun to return to southern Sudan. It is expected that more than a third of Sudan’s two million IDPs will ultimately return to this region. Economic opportunities for women are vital in making sure that women are fully involved at all levels of society. Despite the devastation wrought by protracted conflict, the population, especially women, is eager and hopeful for change. Women for Women International aims to use our expertise with women and post-conflict societies to help integrate socially excluded women and women’s organizations in Sudan’s reconstruction and development.Close
I just finished scrubbing my fingernails for the fifth time today. No matter how many times I scrub I just keep finding more and more layers of dirt. Yesterday I left Sudan. There are so many layers to the complex life in Sudan. It is a huge country the size of Western Europe haunted by years of conflicts mainly due to racism and resources. It is just amazing how different the cultures are from one place to another and how different people look. I have never been in a country that is this diverse and I was shocked at what I saw over the past two weeks.
Before we departed I read a huge binder put together for me full of reports and newspaper articles, but there was nothing in that binder that spoke of the story that I saw in Sudan. There is an untold story about Sudan, no one covers issues outside of Darfur. No one shows the complicated women's movement and history of the Sudanese women. No one sees beyond Darfur.
With me on this assessment trip were my colleagues, Pat Morris, Director of Programs, Manal Omar, Regional Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and world renowned photographer, Susan Meiselas. We traveled to the Eastern and Southern part of the country. Our plans to travel to Darfur fell apart after aid workers were attacked the day before we arrived.
When we arrived in Rumbek, the expected capital of the South after the newly signed peace agreement, we were shocked to see the utter and complete destruction that resulted from nearly 30 years of wars. There is nothing standing. There isn't one house, one school, one clinic standing. Everything has been totally destroyed. Those who are lucky sleep in a tent. Those who are not, sleep in the wilderness.
It baffles me how one can talk about Sudan without mentioning the destruction in the South, the suffering of the people there, the millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees who had escaped the fighting and are living in unlivable conditions. How can someone talk about Sudan without mentioning what women went through and are still going through in terms of attacks, rape, enslavement, kidnappings and forced marriages? How can we talk about justice in one neighborhood and ignore injustice in another?
The East is haunted by a long lasting dry desert. The desert is cruel and harsh on its people who scramble for water. Everyone has to buy water. And the most economically excluded person still has to pay up to $4 a day in water and food in order to survive; this is the highest daily cost of living for a much impoverished population that I have ever encountered.
Whenever I asked a woman in the East what she needed, the answer was always: water. “And how about if you have water, would you want a radio?” I asked a woman who, although still living in the massive heat of the desert in her tent with her husband and children, she was considered a well off woman by local standards. “No, just water. After that I want schools for my children within a reasonable distance.” Yes, beyond water in the East, everyone was asking for schooling for the children as well as the adult population. “We can not progress without education,” one woman said which echoed the concerns of so many others that we spoke with. When in Khartoum I met so many daughters who were sent by their mothers with some relatives or friends across the country to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, just so they can finish their education. The things that mothers do to give a better chance to their daughters…. It brought home my own story with my mother.
Regardless where we were, we were constantly struck by the developed civil society and women’s movement in Sudan. We just could not believe what we were seeing and what we were hearing from the women. It baffled all of us how such a sophisticated civil society could not be mentioned in all of the discussion and report about around Sudan. Before our trip to Sudan, I had been meeting with the Iraqi parliamentarians, civil society members and members of the constitutional drafting committee who attended our Iraq constitution conference in Jordan. I was humbled to see how developed women’s rights were in the Sudanese constitution, how developed their women’s studies departments are in women universities, how developed women are even at the grassroots level across the country in terms of organizing themselves, registering themselves and creating and implementing a system to help those who are less fortunate within the society.
There is an untold story about Sudan and it is not only about the injustice and the needs in other parts of the country beyond Darfur, but it is about the images of its women beyond the victims that you see on the front page of the newspapers… There are women warriors out there… There are hidden warriors of Sudan who have been struggling for women’s rights and injustice and whose voices we have not heard. As my favorite Talmudic saying goes “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.”
We are currently in the process of compiling a more comprehensive report about our trip and will need all the help we can get to raise the funds to open an office in Sudan as soon as absolutely possible. There is a huge need out there and every drop of development assistance (beyond humanitarian assistance) will be crucial to building and sustaining peace in this complex country.