“Equal rights for women is a shared struggle across the world”—Rachel Gieu, Gender Rights Activist, South Sudan
JONGLEI - Rachel Adau Gieu is a fierce advocate for women’s rights in Jonglei, South Sudan.
Her childhood was in no way a fairytale. She lost her father at an early age and says she owes a lot to her mother who brought up Rachel and her five siblings singlehandedly.
“As a young girl, I always felt trapped by restrictive social norms that I was forced to adhere to,” she reminisces. “Perhaps the worst experience was watching my mother struggle to make ends meet at a time when we had no support and no money to pay for our school fees.”
Her childhood experiences were the lynchpin for Rachel’s decision to become a women’s rights activist and, today, she is Executive Director of the Women’s Empowerment Centre as well as Chair of Jonglei’s Gender Champions Taskforce.
This spirited 30-year-old says that her dream is to usher in transformational change in society. “Women and girls across South Sudan are essentially marginalized. Education for girls isn’t a priority and they are often seen by families as means of gaining wealth,” reveals Rachel.
“We are forced to marry before we are ready to and, consequently, relegated to the background when it comes to participating in decision-making. I often use an analogy from football to describe women’s lives in our country—it's like being a perennial goalkeeper. Just as a goalkeeper is responsible for saving attempted goals from the opposing team, but within in a narrow space, women here have to operate in a very limited sphere. But the unpaid labour we do—bringing up children, running the home, taking on most domestic chores—is massive,” she continues.
“Therefore, it is my firm belief that we must demand our space in the sun. We must be safe from sexual violence, have equal access to economic and legal frameworks, and, most importantly, participate fully in public life,” states Rachel passionately.
The civil wars of 2013 and 2016 also had a massively detrimental impact on furthering the cause of gender equality, says Rachel.
“It was a time that I would rather not recall—the suffering of women was perhaps, at its peak. We were raped, our children killed, an entire generation of girls dropped out of school, and our livelihoods were ruined,” she states.
However, with the Revitalized Peace Agreement, Rachel believes that hope resurfaced.
“The peace deal made it possible to have 35 per cent affirmative action for women across South Sudan and this is the most significant gain in our shared struggle for equal rights. However, much more remains to be done,” she avers candidly.
For Rachel, there is no tailormade solution to equality. “Equal rights for women and girls is a shared struggle across the world. I believe that education, economic empowerment and consistent advocacy is needed for women to be able to take their rightful place alongside men in deciding the life of a nation.”
On International Women’s Day, Rachel calls on women and young girls across South Sudan to speak up and speak out. “We are in this together, so let’s lobby for our rights. There is power in a collective voice.”