“South Sudanese women have the potential to be adept peacebuilders” – Edea Sharon, Gender Affairs Officer, UNMISS
BENTIU - Born in Juba, South Sudan, Edea Sharon grew up in the refugee camps of neighboring Uganda. Today at 40, she is the mother of two children. But her parenting role started early in life. As the first-born she was like a second mother to her siblings and at the age of 25, she started paying for their education. Edea holds two Masters degrees—one in Global Governance and the other in Sustainable International development and Coexistence in Conflict. She is currently working towards gaining a doctoral degree in conflict studies while working fulltime as a Gender Affairs Officer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Q: What made you gravitate towards becoming a Gender Affairs Officer?
I spent my youth in refugee camps. I think that’s the reason I have always felt compelled to fight against inequality, injustice, and girls’ right to education. I became a Gender Officer because my personal values are in line with the global United Nations mandate on gender affairs. There is an overwhelming injustice across this country that screams for the attention of any enlightened and conscious South Sudanese woman. My goal is to rise in the professional ladder and handle a position of responsibility because I feel responsible for the gender inequality and discrimination against women and girls in my country. Women are worse off than men simply because they are women.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges faced by women and young girls in South Sudan?
A: The common ordeals of an ordinary South Sudanese woman or girl range from sexual and physical assaults, domestic violence, early and forced marriages, and emotional violence. She runs the risk of being attacked when going about her daily activities, both within and outside her own community; she has no privacy at home; no right to choose the man of her dreams. The triple burdens of production, reproduction and community management rest on her shoulders yet she is not considered fit for leadership roles in the public domain. Customs and traditions are not helping either. Even when the state is making amends in terms of laws – for example, the current Land Acts have provisions for women’s ownership of land – traditions and customs continue to hold them down. Women’s land rights are still mediated through male relatives. So, one must ask what happens if a woman doesn’t have a male relative. This is a real concern in South Sudan, as most women lost the men in their families during the civil war.
Q: How do you think the work you do every day helps in mitigating the issues faced by women here?
Addressing the insecurities faced by women and girls and ensuring some safety measures and mechanisms are put in place to minimize any potential risk is what I do. For example, my office advocated for an increase in the number of women police officers and women teachers to act as role models to girls in schools. I assist girls seeking psychosocial support and connect them to structures that can help them, such as religious bodies. I advocate for women’s rights by engaging and encouraging women leaders to have regular dialogues with government authorities on issues affecting them directly. My office engages community leaders to strengthen women and girls’ security and I am part of a body that investigates issues affecting women and brings them to the attention of local authorities. This has increased community awareness about human rights and justice. About education, I use myself as a model to make parents understand the importance of sending their daughters to school and encourage them to give equal chances to both young girls and boys.
Q: In your opinion, why is it important to ensure women are equally represented at all levels of politics, peacebuilding and decision-making in a society?
Women and girls are the most affected by the violent conflicts in South Sudan and are still bearing the brunt of challenges in the aftermath of civil war. Leaving them out of politics, decision-making, and all other processes geared towards development and peacebuilding is tantamount to excluding their views, opinions, and rights. Who will speak for them or represent their views in the places where policies are made? Structural violence is a stumbling block to peace processes across South Sudan. Women’s under-representation and low participation in decision making in this country is greatly contributing to the persistence of conflicts in several ways. With their negotiation skills as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, South Sudanese women have the potential to be adept peacebuilders. Besides most households in South Sudan are managed by women. How can we talk of sustainable development if women are not taken on board? If you exclude our women, you’re excluding more than half the population.
Q: Tell us why the fight for gender equality is so important for a young country like South Sudan?
A: Understanding the obstacles women face is a critical entry point for addressing violence against women. Helping communities to speak to these issues contributes in reducing some barriers women face in accessing leadership positions. Women’s participation is not only a fundamental human right but also an operational necessity and in a young nation like South Sudan women’s representation and participation in all processes has a direct on peace negotiations and its sustainability. If we are serious about enhancing conflict resolution strategies and preventing violence, we must adopt a gender-sensitive approach to understand the factors contributing to the exclusion of women and other minorities in the country. Unless we take actions to create an environment where everybody is treated with dignity and respect regardless of age, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, class, language, religion, or any other difference, we won’t see sustainable peace and development.
Q: Why do you feel that the annual 16 Days of Activism is so crucial?
In as much as we need to be talking about gender-based violence all year round, the annual 16 Days of Activism enables us to raise awareness on the perennial nature of gender-based violence and its horrific effect on women and children. The energy that flows during these 16 days is magical, when international organizations, women’s networks, and all stakeholders galvanize their resources to reach out to survivors. It is a time of sharing information and best practices that could lead to better strategies to eliminate gender-based violence. The 16 Days of Activism are crucial for women in South Sudan because during this period, no one can stop them from coming out and taking a stand against harmful practices. They allow us to take a stand against violence and encourage everyone to work together to find lasting solutions.
Q: What are some key moments in your career where you’ve made a tangible difference to young women and girls in this country? Give us a few examples.
A: I started working for women and girls in South Sudan at Plan International. That’s where I developed a passion for telling women’s stories. Two years later, I transitioned to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and worked with the Civil Affairs Division, where I raised awareness on women's involvement in implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. Furthermore, working in human resources with Deloitte gave me an incredible window to view women's participation in the development process. I assisted in establishing new hubs for income-generating activities and supported disadvantaged women and girls. I have resolved to assist not only young girls but boys also in the same manner I was assisted through mentoring and making them aware of numerous scholarships opportunities to further their education. Today, in my capacity as a Gender Affairs Officer with UNMISS, I am contributing to building the functional and technical capacity of women’s organizations to enable them to advocate and negotiate while engaging with state and county authorities to increase their representation and participation in peacebuilding.
Q: Have you personally ever experienced bias because of your gender?
A: Absolutely. I was denied higher education and expected to get married. But I was lucky and motivated by my teachers who were like a beacon guiding me.
Q: If you had a message for the young women of South Sudan and the world, what would it be?
A: As we celebrate 16 Days of Activism, I want to encourage displaced women in Bentiu who have seriously affected by the catastrophic floods here. All their income-generating activities have come to a stand-still, but I want them to know that we are all with them. The same goes for every woman who has suffered any form of violence—we are all here for you and are trying our best to make sure that no woman experiences abuse ever again.