How women make a difference for peace in South Sudan

A group of inspiring women have helped reduce violence in an area known as South Sudan’s Wild West.

Each morning at seven, Mary Oleyo assembles her table and pots under a tree on one of the busy market streets in Pibor. The 56-year-old warns that her coffee is strong for the unaccustomed. It has earned her a good reputation. Her four plastic chairs are occupied by customers most of the time.

Mary also offers tea, and her friends sell bakery accompaniments to Mary’s brews. They work together with a group of women seated nearby.

“A lot of our activities support each other as a network”, Mary says.

Peace is when you can move freely

Women like Mary wake up even before sunrise to set up their shops. The commerce continues until sunset.

Ask anyone and they will tell you that this is what peace looks like, Mary assures.

“You can move around freely and focus on your business, without worrying for your own or your family’s safety. Your children can go to school safely and get an education.”

Mary is Chair Lady for a Women’s Peace Committee. The group consists of 15 members. The women’s network reaches other similar committees in villages surrounding Pibor.

Mary and the women in her committee call themselves Virgins for Peace. They meet regularly at a shelter just outside the market. Their name sprang from a desire for change in the war-torn community.

“We are not young, but who would listen to us if we called ourselves something that sounds old and slow? We thought Virgins was a more exciting name”, Mary explains and laughs.

Women cooperate with traditional authorities

The Women’s Peace Committee was formed in Pibor after a severe outbreak of violence in early 2016. Pibor is the main town in Boma State, located nearly 400 kilometres east of the capital Juba.

Pibor is also home to the Murle people. The area is known as South Sudan’s Wild West for its cattle raids and the prevalence of guns. Revenge attacks between rivalling youth groups within the Murle communities and between Murle and neighbouring Dinka and Nuer tribes were devastating.

Peacebuilding in Boma State

  • Finn Church Aid (FCA) has worked for peace and reconciliation in Boma State, South Sudan since 2016.
  • Boma State has around 200,000 inhabitants.
  • The project has been financed by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Negotiations resulted in peace agreements, and peacebuilding efforts formed peace committees that brought together influencers. Youth, women, traditional chiefs and religious actors each formed groups and started working together to ensure that peace prevailed across the county.

Traditionally, the village elders have been the ones to solve conflicts and administer justice, but now elders say that war has caused the youth’s respect towards their traditional authority to falter.

Youth want to influence at a younger age. War has taught them to push for it through violence, and revenge attacks between youths can escalate into large-scale fighting that affects everyone.

“That is why we step in immediately, at the very outbreak of any minor incident”, Mary says.

Talking from a mother’s viewpoint

What do you say in a situation where two youth are pitted against one another and decide that only one of them will remain alive? Rebecca Lokali, 53, says that they talk from their position as mothers – even it is not their own sons.

That makes them put down their weapons, according to Rebecca. And if needed, the women can also involve the youth’s actual mothers when necessary.

“We ask the youth who fight: do you want to leave your mothers to grieve you after you have killed each other, and take care of your families when you are gone”, she says.

The traditional chiefs in the community have praised the women from being the first ones to step in, preventing minor incidents from escalating. Chiefs still exercise their authority in administering justice, but their work is much easier with the help of women’s groups.

What is striking is that men actually call the women’s committee to mediate when something happens, Rebecca says. Everyone listens to the women when they identify troublemakers.

Three years ago, villagers reported incidents of violence five times a week. Now incidents occur at an average of once a week, according to official records.

Joyce Arkello, 48, says that their committee meets every week, and in between, they take care of their businesses and their homes. All the time, they are ready to react to disputes.

“We practically never sleep”, Joyce concludes.

Convincing families to choose education over child marriage

Fighting is commonly attributed to youth, but issues that drive youth into violence centre around poverty and the difficulty to access education. In a predominantly pastoralist community, boys grow up taking care of cattle while girls are married off as teenagers to earn more cattle for their families.

The cattle is like a bank account. You sell a cow when you need cash for vital products, like medicine. Parents get 50 cows for marrying off a daughter. The immediate gain is tempting for a poor family.

Girls are married off way too early, even as young as 13 years old. Rebecca says that this is something they struggle to change. The women’s group speak to families about alternatives.

“We encourage them to send their children to school, especially the girls. Women sometimes respond that they cannot make that decision in their household”, she says.

Rebecca knows what they mean. She had to stand her ground to have her children go to school. Her husband decided to leave her, but she stuck to her plan and collected firewood for school fees.

Today her children live in Juba, taking care of themselves, and they bring food to Rebecca’s table.

“With my story, I try to convince other parents to invest in their children’s education.”

Freedom to move and act

The women’s group stresses that the community needs more opportunities for youth who never had a chance to go to school. They point out that livelihoods need to be developed, and youth need skills to start businesses that boost the local economy, ultimately reducing poverty.

Vocational education is a way to specialize in practical skills, like tailoring, and combined with entrepreneurship training, this can be a way forward for youth, Joyce says. As long as alternatives do not exist, there is always a risk that they pick up their sticks and guns.

Joyce is sure that children who grow up with education will become bright leaders in the future. That is when these women’s work pays off.

“I have found my happiness from the freedom to move and act and I hope they will too.”

Text: Erik Nyström, Photos: Sumy Sadurni