Since 2006, Women for Women International–South Sudan has worked with women uprooted from their homes and left behind by conflict and danger. We established our first office in Rumbek Lake and have since relocated to Yei. In 2016, we were forced to pause all programming and transition to supporting local partners in Yei and northern Uganda as intensified war wracked the country.
When we were able to fulfill our promise of returning in 2019, we rehired many former staff and implemented a six-month program focused on strengthening women’s business skills so they could rebuild their lives and the local economy. Last year, we resumed our year-long Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program before COVID-19 paused programming yet again.
Since then, we’ve resumed again and continue to support women in South Sudan who have lived through it all. The growth that our office has experience would not be without the strength of the program participants and their hope in a brighter future. They continue to be our guiding light through the pandemic and our recovery.
Breaking Down Barriers
When COVID-19 came to South Sudan in March of 2020, a government directive to close all schools and educational facilities brought our training in Yei to a standstill. Fortunately, NGOs were declared essential, so my colleagues and I could safely report to the office during lockdowns to distribute stipends and soap to participants. Hand sanitizer and masks were also provided for staff and participants, and my team was briefed on WHO guidelines to deliver monthly COVID-19 awareness training to participants, graduates, and community members via our radio talk show. Ultimately, in August, we were able to restart our regular training.
My team collaborated with national and international health partners in Yei to create a biweekly radio talk show to spread accurate information on things like health, hygiene, COVID-19, and gender-based violence prevention. Initially, we didn’t expect the show to be a huge success, but because radio is a trusted form of communication throughout South Sudan, the show was a hit and will be continued moving forward. It offers a direct line of communication not only with participants stuck at home, but community members throughout Yei. This project will prove crucial in our fight against violence against women and bringing the people of Yei together to shift cultural norms against it.
As we build the movement against gender-based violence, it’s vital that we leave no one behind. Last year, as an additional response to the pandemic, my team created a workshop to connect with women who live with hearing and vision impairments. This is group is often forgotten or excluded, so we partnered with Disability Action Group and a sign-language interpreter to accommodate women with disabilities and build awareness around COVID-19 prevention. This engagement taught us many lessons for the future of our programming and further reaching ultra-marginalized women. We know that the power of women, including those with disabilities, is a force for change that has only just begun to be tapped. We plan on continuing outreach to people with disabilities in the coming years to reach the corners of South Sudan that have long been ignored.
Building a Local Network
Local partnerships are a lifeline for small NGOs as they grow and cultivate relationships with communities and those that they serve. This year, our new Country Director, Marianne Kajokaya will begin the process of mapping and vetting local women’s organizations to help us strengthen our roots in Yei and beyond. These partnerships will form a network working together against gender-based violence. We’re excited to have our first partner in Juba, LuLu Care, a woman-led NGO dedicated to providing basic necessities to women in South Sudan.
In addition to growing our organizational network, my team and I are striving to reach more participants as they continue to struggle against internal displacement. According to the United Nations, there are 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in South Sudan and 2.3 million South Sudanese refugees in neighboring countries. In the communities where we work, there is a growing population of IDPs, and 250 graduates last year were IDPs. We’re proud to support this group of people as they find their places in new communities and in our programs. IDPs and refugees will be a target population for our programming as conflict in South Sudan takes away their homes and their futures—and we are here for women as they return home to rebuild their lives and families. Working with them to build business skills and rights awareness will ultimately bring them stability and confidence.
Business skills are a cornerstone of our programming, and this year, we have around 14 active savings groups that meet weekly. My colleagues and I work with graduates to monitor their savings and take pride in that several participants have largely benefited from their vocational trainings after graduation. This outcome is heartening and helps us tailor the training to different populations and market demand. Men participants have also reported success after graduation from the program. We provide transportation allowances for several participants who make long journeys to attend the program. In one instance, a man in the program saved his allowances and bought a chicken with them. Now, after graduation, he is rearing chickens and turning a profit!
Equality for All
As our office and programming rapidly grows, my team and I will focus heavily on men’s engagement activities. Connecting with men as allies is vital to gender equality because we know that raising awareness among women is not helpful when the men in their lives do not also have the same education.
Most of our national military in South Sudan is comprised of men who often leave wives and families behind while they serve. When men return from war, after long lengths of time exposed to the trauma of dangerous and strenuous situations, men often bring this stress—and in some cases, violence—home with them. We want to engage these men in order to give them mechanisms to cope with this trauma and work with their partners to create stability in lives strained by conflict. Changing the attitudes and behaviors of male relatives and husbands in a woman’s life will encourage equal power dynamics and erase patriarchal norms from households. To build on the two-month men’s engagement curriculum we piloted in 2019, my team will expand to a three-month program to target male relatives of participants and male community leaders.
Changing the Conversation
Change Agents have been a mainstay of our program since its beginning 15 years ago. With a new grant from the European Union, the advocacy work of the Change Agents is a large priority. Our Change Agents network hosts forums to provide women and men an opportunity to discuss women’s issues together and find solutions to local and national problems. For example, family planning is not strictly a woman’s responsibility, it is also the responsibility of the husband or man who shares a life with the woman. It’s common for men to say, “this is not our problem, it’s a women’s issue.” Our team works with Change Agents and local health partners to improve family planning skills for both men and women participants. Open conversations allow men and women to level with each other and create individualized plans for themselves, all with the help of professionals.
Aside from conversation mediators, Change Agents act as role models for participants and other women in the community. Change Agents partner with local legal firms like the South Sudan Law Society to provide rights advice for women looking to inherit their property. Change Agents facilitate a lot of this advocacy and encourage women to fight for the land and property they’re entitled to.
“Our ultimate goal is to raise the voices of the voiceless.”
The future of Women for Women International–South Sudan is expansive and bright because of the momentous progress my team and I have made in the last few years. Despite COVID-19 and unceasing conflict, the women we serve have shown us the power of a group determined to change their community and their world. I look forward to the next several years and what the women of South Sudan will achieve.