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Food and Water as Life and Death: Why Redefining the Power of South Sudanese Women is Urgent

Finding food and water is woman’s work in South Sudan, a conflict-torn nation where two-thirds of the population (8.9 million people) is facing catastrophic starvation. But when Aamira, a 17-year-old bride, leaves her home to look for water, the journey itself is perilous.  

Not only because she has to walk long distances – the wells closest to her village, mostly built by humanitarian groups, no longer function - but also because she runs the risk of encountering violent abuse from roving soldiers, both governmental and rebel. According to a 2022 UN Security Council Human Rights Report, some women and girls, alone or in groups, don’t even make it home alive. 

For both water and security reasons, repairing the wells closest to villages seems to be the most immediate solution, but bureaucratic red tape can be daunting. But that’s exactly why Women for Women International has developed programs to equip the most marginalized women with the skills they need to better manage not only their households but also their larger communities. 

The goal isn’t even hidden.  

"Our priority,” says Miriah John, Advocacy Coordinator in our South Sudan office located in the southern city of Yei, “is to increase women’s participation in leadership roles in Yei County, and beyond."  

To empower women with the skills they need for basic survival is a 360-degree shift in this patriarchy-dominated region, where two-thirds of South Sudanese women are married off as child brides. But the factors producing such food and water insecurity are even more complex.   

Despite winning its independence 11 years ago after two decades of violent conflict, South Sudan is still wracked by intertribal hostilities. Over the last two years, the double knock-up effect of the pandemic and the Ukraine War has paralyzed supply chains and driven food and fuel prices sky-high. And Mother Nature hasn’t been kind.   

In 2021 alone, after three years of unprecedented flooding one million people have had to flee their homes. This CNN report shows the devastating impact up close.  Entire cities flooded. Crops destroyed. Many suffering water-borne diseases. Malnutrition of children at the highest recorded. This year, it’s estimated that approximately 600,000 more South Sudanese will be in the path of expanding flood waters and at risk of displacement. 

In the face of such catastrophes, Women for Women International (WfWI) believes strongly that women can still impact their quality of life. In our Stronger Women Stronger Nations program, a woman breaks the isolation of war and conflict by joining a small group of women just like her. Together, they form support networks, learn to earn an income and save money, and gain knowledge and resources about health and their rights.   

The effect can be powerful. 

For example, in 2016, 34-year-old Nema Onzia enrolled in our program in Jansuk with the dream of becoming an entrepreneur. After learning how to save money, she used the stipends she’d received to sell onions, fish, tomatoes, coffee and cooking oil out of her home until conflict forced her and her family to flee. In that moment she lost everything. Far from home, survival became day to day, she could no longer afford to send her children to school, and the stress caused her and her husband to separate. 

But four years later, armed with the knowledge she received from our program, Nema was able to raise over 150,000 SSP ($1150) and expanded her business, stocking new goods like eggs, sugar, soap, tea, beer, and soda. Her children are back in school. She has reunited with her husband. And she is even dreaming of opening a tea shop.   

“I wish a program like this could reach every woman like me,” Nema tells us.

(Read Nema’s full story here.

Change Agents SS
Change Agents in South Sudan. Photo Credit: Miriah John.

Learning to impact the bigger community, however, takes more training. Our advanced program called Change Agents further supports women’s participation in all the decision-making that affects their lives by educating about women’s rights, gender and power analysis, problem-solving, communication, and action planning. Meeting regularly with training mentors and conferring with different groups of Change Agents helps share learnings across issues. 

So, what is being done about those nonworking wells?  

Cecilia Umi Zachariah, one of our Change Agents in Jansuk, took the problem of no clean drinking water personally. As the representative of women in her village meetings, she deeply listened to her fellow countrywomen and gathered opinions about their many urgent concerns.  

Then armed with the communication skills she’d gained from her advanced WfWI training, she confronted the Yei River county commissioner when he visited her village and described exactly what women have to go through to collect water in the absence of working wells.   

The Commissioner’s response?  

A promise that his team would liaise with stakeholders to repair the wells and thus facilitate a workable water supply.  

In Cecilia’s mind, that one step, if followed through, has the potential to save a lot of lives. But it’s only the first step in a long series of steps toward creating a more workable existence for herself, her family and her community.  

Cecilia’s next step might just be running for office. 

 

Learn more about our programs in South Sudan.

Learn how you can make an impact and sponsor a sister in South Sudan.

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