“Women are capable and complete in themselves”—Atong Malek, Entrepreneur, South Sudan
NORTHERN BAHR EL GHAZAL - Atong Malek runs a tailoring establishment in Aweil, Northern Bahr El Ghazal, where she designs clothes for both women and men.
It hasn’t been easy for Atong to establish herself as a business owner.
“My father died when I was very young and my mother brought me up single-handedly,” she recalls.
“I saw how difficult it was for her to put food on the table and educate her children. So, I took it upon myself to assist her in any way possible, whether it was helping her farm on the small plot of land we owned or doing household chores,” she reveals.
“However, no matter what hardships she faced, my mother insisted that my siblings and I must receive an education,” she continues.
Her mother’s resolve in turn inspired Atong: From walking barefoot to school, this determined young woman ended up with a diploma in developmental studies.
“I was always interested in art and colours,” she reminisces. “My schoolbooks would be filled with patterns and doodles and that’s when my interest in designing clothes really started.”
Today, business is booming for Atong and she employs five people to help her run the shop.
“I believe that if you have any skill, any talent, and you share this with other people who are willing to learn from you, it has a multiplier effect on society,” she states passionately.
“Someday, the five people working with me will have developed their own design sensibilities and opened their own shops. My hope is that they will pass on their knowledge to more young people. We can’t depend on others to build a more hopeful future for young South Sudanese. We must take ownership of our own lives.”
The civil wars of 2013 and 2016 were difficult times. “These were dark years in the history of South Sudan,” she reveals. “Women and young girls, especially, suffered terribly. There was a massive increase in sexual violence—women were raped, children orphaned, and homes and properties destroyed.”
However, with a peace deal and a transitional government in place, Atong says she believes that the security situation is marginally better. “At least we can go to the markets, buy necessary goods to run our businesses; travel to other states has also become easier,” she opines.
But while violence may have reduced, Atong feels that women and young girls are still not given their due across the world’s youngest nation.
“Young girls are still forced to marry without completing their education and women have little or no say in taking decisions that impact our lives directly,” she avers.
“Women have always been the bedrock upon which South Sudanese society is built. We are the ones who unite communities and bring up children—future leaders of our country. If our opinions aren’t heard and included at every level, how can our country build peace?” she questions.
For this entrepreneur, durable peace begins at home and its architects are primarily women.
“Women have a natural knack for peacemaking and mediation. We must be given platforms to contribute to shaping sustainable peace at every level—in families, in communities and nation-wide,” Atong states.
This articulate woman practices what she preaches. “I can confidently say that I hold no grudges against anyone. I always prefer to settle disputes through dialogue,” she says with a smile.
For Atong, the biggest life lesson she has learned is the power of self-reliance. “My mother taught me that nothing is impossible. So, on International Women’s Day, my message to all women and girls is to depend on nobody but yourself. You are capable and complete in yourself.”