The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

Building peace and hope one girl at a time

After being engulfed in over 20 years of bloody civil war between the north and the south, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, only for brutal and complex internal conflict to erupt again in late 2013. Often portrayed by the media as an “ethnic conflict,” South Sudan’s civil war connects acutely to politics and power issues and the constant shifting of alliances between groups, all coupled with a very heavily armed civilian population.

So far, an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by conflict, while all sides have been accused of gross human rights violations and attacks against civilians across the country. Reports from the United Nations  and other groups  describe the horrific sexual violence committed specifically against women and girls.

S Sudan1 ONAD

Bekah (bottom R) poses with other MCC staff and members of Organization of Non-Violence and Development (ONAD) in Juba, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Even beyond armed conflict and sexual violence, the challenges for girls at the community level are many. Recently, as part of a small delegation from MCC offices in North America, I was able to visit programs and partners in South Sudan. In the town of Rumbek, northwest of Juba, we talked extensively about these challenges..

One of the biggest challenges facing girls, in addition to armed conflict, is early and forced marriage. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages often with pressure from family members, especially uncles and other male relatives. In this region of South Sudan, cattle farming is central to the local economy and practice, including marriage dowries. When a young man wants to get married he often has to borrow cattle from his older brothers and uncles to pay the bride price. Once this young man and his wife begin to have daughters of their own, his older brothers may apply intense pressure and even physical force – kidnapping girls from their parents’ houses – to have the daughters marry as soon as possible, in order to regain the cattle price.

In addition, for most families, education for boys is highly favoured over that of girls. The girls who actually start primary school are much less likely to finish, let alone start secondary school. Many are forced to drop out due to early marriage, or their brothers are given preference over the cost of school fees in secondary school. In a context where education as a whole makes up less than 1% of the national budget, these factors only further hinder girls from shaping their own lives and futures.

In a bold move ten years ago, the council of chiefs and leaders in the Rumbek area expressed a strong desire to develop a secondary school for girls. An Irish organization, Loreto, was invited to begin working with community leaders to help develop the Loreto Girls Secondary School. MCC has since joined to support this initiative.

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Students take a break from their classes at Loreto Girls Secondary School, Rumbek, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Starting off small, Loreto has quickly become a highly sought-after program for girls from around the country. This year, over 200 girls have applied for the 65-70 open spaces, which are awarded based on academic ability, regional diversity, and level of risk facing applicants. The school also serves as a safe space for girls and young women. Girls who feel they are in danger of a forced marriage, or their home region is caught up in violence, are permitted to remain on campus year round rather than return home for three months when school is not in session.

The school also emphasizes opportunity – encouraging students to dream big and think about their future. MCC supports after-school clubs in science, engineering and technology, where students experiment with various technologies, such as computer tablets, while working to improve math and science skills.

In addition, peace clubs are a key element of the school curriculum, providing a safe place for students to deal with personal issues, as well as learn conflict resolution skills that can be applied in their relationships with other students as well as with their families and communities.  Participation in peace clubs also gives the students, and anyone interacting with them, be it teachers or their friends and family, a vision for achieving peace in their country.

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Students prepare to participate in a debate.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Loreto monitors its alumni and has seen impressive results. In recent years over 40% of graduates have gone directly on to university, in South Sudan and other countries throughout the region. Many others continue into other training or transition into work.

A major highlight for our group was a drama and poetry performance. Here the students expressed their hopes for peace in South Sudan, and also their hopes to be valued for who they are – young women who are proud of themselves and their heritage. With smiles and laughter they demonstrated a keen knowledge of the unique challenges they face, but also the determination to press on.

One can easily get lost in the complexities of conflict in South Sudan, especially the challenges faced by women and girls. But hope and peace often emerge from the ground up, one girl at a time.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office of MCC.