16 Days of Activism: "Women's rights are human rights" - Davidica Ayahu, Eastern Equatoria

unmiss 16 days of activism women peace security south sudan
25 Nov 2021

16 Days of Activism: "Women's rights are human rights" - Davidica Ayahu, Eastern Equatoria

Samira Y. Salifu

TORIT - 60-year-old Davidica Ikai Grasiano Ayahu is widowed with two children. But, according to her, the part of her life that she’s most proud of is her role as a social worker. As the Executive Director of the Itwak Women’s Empowerment Organization in Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan, Davidica has devoted her life to raising awareness on issues that impact communities, especially women and young girls directly. In this candid interview, this committed activist tells us why speaking up and speaking out for their rights is vital for women in the world’s youngest nation.  

Q: Why, in your opinion, are more women not involved in politics, governance and decision-making in South Sudan?

A: You know, it’s a combination of factors—we’re very patriarchal in South Sudan and there’s a very high level of illiteracy among women. Often, girls are considered a burden by families and not given the same access to education as boys. Even when we were one with Sudan, education was not seen as a priority. The second factor is that regressive cultural practices such as marrying off underage girls widened the education gap. Consequently, many women access formal education during the later stages of their lives, by which time it becomes impossible to catch up with men.

South Sudanese women have always been many steps behind men and conflict exacerbated our challenges, plus obliterated our voices.

This has changed somewhat in recent times, with the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement and more and more women fighting for their right to a formal education. However, the truth is there are still only a few of them in politics and decision-making. This is because women need to be mentored and be able to harness opportunities to enhance their skills. The 35 per cent affirmative action policy has helped but we have a long road ahead before we are considered truly equal.

Q: Could you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced, as a working woman? In general, could you also shed some light on issues women face every day in this country?

A: Well, there are always men who think a woman can’t work, can’t be productive. So, I feel like I must perpetually compete with men to prove myself or risk getting pulled down. Thankfully, because I have so many years of experience in my field, I employ many creative avenues to achieve targets.

Generally, women here are denied their voice in front of male audiences, oftentimes because of society’s assigned gender roles. As you may be aware, it is a taboo in some South Sudanese cultures for women to speak in front of men. So even though recent awareness campaigns are drawing women out of the shadows to, some are still apprehensive about being bold and forthright in front of men for fear of upsetting the status quo. I know I’ve said this before but forced marriages as well as the practice of using girls as compensation between communities for perceived ills they may have inflicted on each other truncate dreams and aspirations of our young girls. These are only a few challenges that we as women endure in this country.

Q: Why do you feel women’s rights and human rights are important?

A: Women’s rights are human rights. You cannot govern while ignoring 50 per cent of society—we are half of any social structure and we matter. I especially like the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; these have provided us the platform and the space for our voices to be heard by promoting our participation in peace and security decision-making.  

Q: South Sudan is currently traversing the long road towards building a sustainable peace. What role do you feel women have been playing in ending conflict in their communities?

A: Women intervene in intercommunal conflicts in the villages and are natural peacebuilders. Personally, I have been directly involved in resolving intercommunal disputes and reconciling three villages; and we are still striving to help other communities. Of course, we are often constrained by a lack of financing, but we are not giving up and will continue to play a crucial role in ending strife among our communities. We are not only peace mediators but participants in the peace process.

If women are empowered speak to issues that directly impact them, they can bring everybody on board.

Recently, during a peace conference in Chahari, Eastern Equatoria, one of the women translated her own experiences of successive violent clashes into a poignant song where she recounted how she carried her son in her womb for nine months, went through labour, saw him grow into a man, only to hear on one fateful day that he had been killed in a faraway land during a cattle raid. She did not even get the opportunity to see her child’s body one final time, because his remains had been devoured by wild animals. Her song left all participants in tears, and her message had been delivered.

Q: What is the most important lesson you would want to pass down to the future generation, as a woman?

A: We must build peace so that future generations will not suffer our fate. They must know that without peace there cannot be any development. They have to be peace. As a nation, we need to unite. It’s now or never.   

Q: If you could send a message to young girls and women across the country, what would it be?

A: No matter how little you think you are, you have a role to play. Don’t undersell yourself and speak out for what you believe in. If young girls remain at home, South Sudan will never move forward towards peace and prosperity