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To end famine and secure peace in South Sudan, women are vital

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Sudanese woman with cowsSouth Sudanese women are supporting families and producing what little food is available – and they are already playing a key role in building peace. Photo: UNDP South Sudan

More than 3.5 million people have been displaced and 7.5 million need emergency aid as a result of South Sudan’s three-year-old civil conflict, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Oil revenues have declined, farming and business activities have halted in many areas, and inflation has soared.

The number of people classified as “severely food insecure” is expected to reach 5.5 million by July 2017, and more than 1 million children are acutely malnourished. The world’s youngest country is now on the brink of mass starvation.

Driving the conflict are deep-rooted communal mistrust, proliferation of small arms, disregard for rule of law, dearth of institutions to resolve disputes, and widespread economic deprivation. According to Elisabeth Ngor, regional director for the South Sudan Mother and Child Care Organization in the north-western region of Aweil, the most vulnerable people of all are women and children. But South Sudanese women are still supporting families and producing what little food is available – and they are already playing a key role in building peace, Ngor and other community members confirm.

“Women are the most important people for participating in discussions to bring peace,” Alweny Jane, an economics student in Rumbek University of Science and Technology, said in a recent UNDP-sponsored peace discussion. “Every child listens to their mother. We are the rightful people to take peace information to children at home. If you tell peaceful messages to your children, they will follow in your footsteps.”

As Country Director for UNDP in South Sudan, I’ve seen first-hand the backbreaking work, courage and determination of women to lift their communities and families out of conflict and extreme poverty – often against extraordinary odds. In South Sudan and indeed much of Africa, women are the major food producers as well as primary caregivers for children and the elderly. Most households displaced by fighting are headed by women.

Conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues unabated – often committed while women perform their regular chores such as collecting firewood or harvesting crops. For this reason, we are investing in protection mechanisms for vulnerable groups, to prevent and respond to SGBV through community policing and peace committees, legal aid services and better social cohesion. 

On farms and in fields, in markets, village meetings and camps for those displaced by fighting, South Sudanese women often ask only for irrigation pumps, agricultural tools and seeds so they can feed their families. We are working with our partners to provide these inputs. We are also supporting improved access to markets, vocational training focused on food and fish processing and renewable energy to keep vital health and education facilities running.

This scaled-up collaboration among agencies providing life-saving emergency aid and longer-term development support, endorsed by global leaders at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, is designed to pave the way forward in South Sudan. Here and in other countries facing protracted crises, we are cooperating to build resilience to future shocks and foster self-sufficiency for women and men.

For us, this means ramping up early recovery and resilience work now under way in Northern Bahr el Ghazal in a joint programme with UNICEF, WFP and FAO. Our national inter-agency recovery strategy aims to expand into Western Equatoria, Jonglei and Unity states.

Our priority is getting people back to work. We are helping local communities address acute poverty, strengthen local governance, build peace and security, restore access to markets and assist small businesses. In all of these activities, a key focus is put on women.  

Last year, we worked with the government, civil society and academia to launch UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report and first-ever National Human Development Report for South Sudan. Our research found that gender inequality reduces South Sudan’s overall human development – meaning everyone’s ability to live with dignity, opportunity and the capacity to achieve his or her potential – by 20 percent. This is a massive waste of the country’s potential and it involves unnecessary suffering for the group that is the backbone of the economy.

Supporting women and girls and amplifying their voices, especially as part of an inclusive national dialogue, will be vital to ending South Sudan’s escalating famine and building a peaceful, resilient nation in the months and years ahead.

“Women in our society are not the ones initiating the conflict,” Hon. Jasmine Samuel Adakayi, Member and former Deputy Speaker of the National Legislative Assembly, said. “In South Sudan, women are for peace. [And all of us] have a voice.”

One of our most important jobs now, aid and development teams agree, is listening to and learning from them and heeding their advice.

Crisis response Blog post Food security South Sudan Gender equality Sexual and gender-based violence Women's empowerment Governance and peacebuilding Youth Aid Kamil Kamaluddeen