JUBA, South Sudan (September 4, 2012) — "Peace starts within you. If you have peace in your heart you can educate others," said Jennifer Kujang Abe, President of the Central Equatoria Women’s Union, during a discussion about the role of women in local conflict resolution.
In South Sudan more than two decades of war and inter-communal fighting have torn apart families and communities, causing thousands of people to flee their homes into neighboring countries and weakening traditional mechanisms for protection. Following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005) and referendum on independence (2011), more than 390,000 South Sudanese have returned to their country. This movement and ongoing economic and social challenges have placed further strain on communities attempting to rebuild fragile relationships.
In Munuki, on the outskirts of Juba, 15 volunteer women are meeting at the offices of the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) to discuss community issues and ways to address them. Together they form a Women Peacekeeping Team (WPT). The Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) set up the first WPT in Juba in November 2011. There are now five teams covering two districts in Central Equatoria State and three districts in Western Equatoria State.
The Munuki WPT is a varied group—some are educated and skilled women who have held positions in county or state government, most are illiterate, and approximately half of the group left during the war. Many were involved in peace movements during the conflict, both inside and out of the country, but now feel marginalized. They all agree on the need for women to be part of the rebuilding process.
”The men were scattered, but we came together,” said Jennifer Kujang, who recently returned from Uganda. “My skills didn’t just come from the air. I worked with women throughout my exile and we can stand alone like men.”
The volunteer women participated in a two-day workshop, building on their communication skills and understanding of gender-based violence (GBV), domestic violence and civil disputes. They learned how to connect with the police, social workers and health service providers and how to register cases of GBV, and reporting these to the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare.
“Women often have information on the ground. They are at home and know what is going on, but they haven’t been empowered to use their knowledge,” said Tiffany Easthom, Country Director, NonViolent Peaceforce (NP). “We have seen that large-scale conflict often builds from a small dispute. It’s critical to use women’s knowledge to allow them to protect themselves and their communities,” she added.
In a country where 70% of children aged 6-17 years have never set foot in a classroom, and adult literacy stands at 27%, the women believe education and employment opportunities need to be prioritized along with community dialogue.
Violence and discrimination against women and girls, rooted in cultural norms, traditions and practices, and the destruction of traditional community-based protection mechanisms due to the civil war are all factors that continue to pose challenges in the implementation of child protection programs.
The women’s training is part of UNICEF’s broader approach to strengthen the protective environment for women and children, through capacity development of key actors within the social welfare, legal, and law enforcement systems at a national, state and community level.
In the last two years more than 275,000 key actors in child protection have received information and education on how best to protect children.
“Being part of the team has provided me with a confidence and pride. I dress better and feel stronger within myself,” said Mama Joy, a widow with seven children. “I am able to be a role model for my children and grandchildren.” She believes the younger generation needs to understand how to live together again for peace.
For many of these women, their participation in the teams is the first time they have had an active, recognized role in this kind of group. Members of the team have already successfully mediated between two men, one of whom had a gun, over a small land dispute and between two young men using sticks against each other.
The active presence of these local women in conflict resolution is part of a broader peacekeeping effort in South Sudan to promote equal representation and women’s leadership.