“Without education, we cannot build a true democracy”: Victoria Adhar Arop Chon, South Sudan
CENTRAL EQUATORIA – “My constituents call me their liberator.” These are the first words spoken by Victoria Adhar Arop Chon.
The sense of pride and accomplishment behind her utterance is palpable. A member of South Sudan’s Transitional National Legislature, Victoria has been active in politics since 2005.
Currently, this feisty 82-year-old leads the Specialized Committee for Defence and Veterans Affairs.
“I was born in Northern Bahr El Ghazal at a time when education for girls wasn’t really a priority,” she reveals. “But my father was different – I had seven siblings and he insisted that we all go to school and university. And I was lucky to marry an educated man as well,” she reminisces with a smile.
Victoria recalls wistfully how her husband, who was killed during the first civil war in undivided Sudan in 1965, was insistent that in case he couldn’t make it back from the frontlines, she would take on the responsibility of educating their children.
“I remember being angry that he was speaking of death,” she says. “But it happened and suddenly, from being a happily married woman, I became a widow and the sole breadwinner.”
Victoria defied cultural norms at the time, which dictated that widows were passed on to their husband’s brother and sought her family’s help to eke out a living as a single mother.
“My parents supported me by gifting me some livestock and I did everything I could to put myself through nursing school while educating my children. It wasn’t easy, being the sole parent and it was most uncommon for women to be economically independent,” she narrates.
Victoria’s hunger for learning didn’t abate with a nursing certificate; seeing the difficulties many women go through during childbirth, she decided to train as a midwife.
But then, conflict erupted once more, and she had to give up her dreams yet again to flee to Ethiopia with her children.“My primary focus was always the children. The minute I could catch my breath, I enrolled them in school in Ethiopia and I joined the military academy there. I was 50 years old at the time, but I had lost so much to war that I wanted to really understand the psychology behind why people fight, why we must leave our country in fear,” she states.
She trained in the military academy for two years. “I was one of 11 women. The rest were all men,” she recalls with a smile.
In 2005, Victoria returned home and when South Sudan got its hard-fought independence in 2011, she wanted to serve her country. But she needed a university degree to serve in this young nation’s Transitional Legislative Assembly.
“I went to President Salva Kiir and shared my story with him. I was tired of people telling me that I couldn’t follow my dreams because my education was incomplete. He immediately granted me a scholarship to pursue further education,” she says with a chuckle.
In November 2022, Victoria graduated from the School of Public Administration and Management in the University of Juba.
“I am 82 years old but education and public service is my lifeline. Being a lawmaker is my way of ensuring a peaceful, prosperous future for my country, where education for women and girls is prioritized. Conflict has caused me to take many breaks in my own academic life, but where there is a will, there is always a way. I’m living proof that there’s no ageism when it comes to learning,” beams Victoria.
Today, as South Sudan, the world’s newest nation begins drafting its permanent constitution and gearing up for its first ever elections, Victoria’s hope is that all outstanding peace benchmarks will finally be completed on time.
“We must embrace peace; conflict has only brought us hunger, death, and despair. It is time that the women, men, and youth of South Sudan put aside their differences and forge a common destiny. The only way we can do this is ensure equal access to education for women and girls. Without education, we cannot build a true democracy. For a better future, we must disrupt the status quo,” she says passionately.