In 2016, the escalating violence of armed militia groups within South Sudan drove many of the women in our program to flee to Uganda to escape brutal gender-based violence (GBV), kidnappings, and murder. Security incidents that directly affected our training staff forced us to prioritize the safety of our staff and participants, and we made the painful decision to temporarily suspend our critical work in South Sudan.
We monitored the situation and counted down the days until it was safe enough to return to Yei Town and once again serve the resilient women of South Sudan. In 2019 we joyfully re-opened our holistic empowerment training program and were enthusiastically welcomed back into the community.
Soon, hundreds of women lined up to enroll in our program. Currently, 250 women are taking the first steps to a more stable future through social empowerment training, business classes, health and well-being courses, while building support networks that will last a lifetime.
But our return has been accompanied by unique challenges. Our equipment in South Sudan was in storage for more than two years, and much of it was damaged by extreme weather or ant and rodent infestation. And although armed militia no longer have a stronghold in Yei Town, the region is still unstable, including major turnover within the government and ever-present threats of gender-based violence within the community. For this reason, we have invested even more resources to ensuring the safety of the women in our program, so they may work towards their brighter future without fear.
Additionally, the women of South Sudan shared that many family and community members do not believe women should be educated or work to provide for their families. To address these cultural perceptions, we’re partnering with community leaders and male family member to discuss the benefits of the women contributing to income generation and household decision making in order to gain the support of these important figures in their lives.
To this end, we began meeting with male leaders in the community through our Men’s Engagement Program. As of September 2019, we are actively educating the community about the benefits and opportunities of our proven program, and as husbands become advocates rather than adversaries, the women continue to flourish.
In fact, many women are now being encouraged team up with fellow program participants to create Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA). These allow women to pool their savings together and borrow money from the group to invest in and support each other’s businesses. To date, there are ten VSLAs among our South Sudan program participants, saving a total of 537,390 South Sudanese Pounds, or $1,885 USD, which will be used to grow their businesses. But VSLAs have an intangible benefit as well: they build trust within the group.
As the women in our training program continue to develop bonds of trust, they encourage each other to talk about the challenges they face, like being overwhelmed at home, illness, food insecurity, and inability to pay for their children’s school fees. Many of the women in our program have endured the trauma of GBV—a weapon of war frequently used by armed militia in South Sudan. Because of their shared experiences, our program participants are uniquely able to support each other as they take steps to work through the complex stigma and aftermath of GBV, which will create a support network that will last a lifetime.
Together we have made incredible progress in South Sudan in a short time. In the face of every challenge we have overcome it together because of the strength and motivation of the women in our program, the ingenuity and dedication of our local South Sudanese staff, and the faithful generosity of supporters who make our programs possible. As we look towards the future, we face our next great challenge: Expanding the South Sudan training program in 2020 to serve more women survivors of war.
News of our work and your support is spreading throughout Yei Town in South Sudan. Many women have already reached out to our staff hoping to enroll in 2020, and we will continue to do everything we can to ensure each woman has the resources she needs to build her brighter future.