South Sudan has long been a difficult and sometimes dangerous place for organizations like Women for Women International to work.
In the rural areas outside Yei, where we had worked since 2013, a surge in violence and infighting escalated in mid-2016 – and in September, we decided to suspend our work soon. Raping and looting was rife, as rebel groups ravaged local communities with impunity. One of our teams was attacked. Many of the women we served fled across the border to Uganda.
We had built a thriving program in Yei, supporting several thousand women to strengthen their families and communities, build their own businesses, and protect themselves and their children.
But it was no longer safe, and we were forced to suspend our work. During 2017 and 2018, Women for Women International continued to support women in Yei through a grant to a local partner, RECONCILE. Our assistance enabled RECONCILE to provide psychosocial support to women affected by the conflict, and to train a core group of women in peacebuilding and leadership skills to become agents of change in their communities.
Janet Coffey, Women for Women International’s Director of Country Support, recalls that time with dismay. “It was devastating, to have to leave,” Coffey says. “Women here are beaten down by poverty and violence, yet they are bearing the brunt of trying to keep households and communities together. This is a place where rape is used as a weapon of war. I consider South Sudan to be the one of the most compelling humanitarian situations in the world. There are horrific things happening here, but most of the world has stopped paying attention. These women have no voice.”
Every day since then, we have envisioned the day when Women for Women International would return to Yei – to begin anew and once again help the women of this ravaged nation play a vital role in its rebuilding.
That day has come. In May 2019, Coffey returned to Yei, where Women for Women International opened a new office and formed a team with former local staff members still committed to empowering women. They dusted off old equipment held in storage since 2016. June marked the launch of a new economic empowerment program for the women of Yei, providing small business training and mentorship, savings and loan assistance, and startup capital.
“We want to target marginalized women that already have some kind of a small business, and help them grow and strengthen that business,” Coffey says. “This is an agricultural center, so many women have small kiosk shops, selling tomatoes and other produce, or baked goods. Some also do sewing.”
The goal, Coffey says, is to help local women grow and strengthen these existing businesses. The extra income will help women send their children to school, pay for medicines and food, and in doing so strengthen family units and, by extension, the broader community.
Yei is still a dangerous place to work, as is much of South Sudan. Once a small, quiet town, this agricultural center has grown in recent years to become the second largest town in the central equatorial region, after Juba. Though there are no paved roads, and no regular municipal electricity supply, it has become a target for opposition forces, a flashpoint of fighting.
But Coffey, who has worked in Africa for three decades, is not easily daunted. Significant security concerns still exist in Yei, requiring a stepped-up level of contingency planning and safety measures to protect Women for Women staff and program participants.”
"If we just kept listening to the security worries, we’d never go,” she says. “And the need is just so great. South Sudan is so hidden from the world, they suffer in silence.”
The challenges of working in such a disrupted area means Coffey had to redesign the traditional 12-month Women for Women International core program, providing instead a modified, 6-month economic empowerment program, initially targeting up to 250 displaced/marginalized women in Yei Town itself. Hopes are that as the security situation improves, we will be able to expand our program activities and geographic coverage to women in rural areas outside of Yei.
By putting women at the forefront of tangible, grassroots economic development in Yei, Coffey and her team of locals aim to make women the peace-builders of their community.
Learn more about how you can support Women for Women International’s work in South Sudan.