Both women and men in Bentiu to break the bias to achieve gender equality

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There was plenty of joy to be had when women, and some men, got together to discuss the ever-important rights of women in all spheres of life. Photos: Roseline Nzelle Nkwelle/UNMISS

8 Mar 2022

Both women and men in Bentiu to break the bias to achieve gender equality

Roseline Nzelle Nkwelle

UNITY STATE – “Gone are the days when women could not participate in dialogue and negotiations,” says Marien Nyarek Gatjiek, female leader at the camp for internally displaced persons in Bentiu.

Befitting her positive affirmation, it was made at a discussion forum organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, and there was more to come.

“We used to face language barriers, but today we have educated women in South Sudan who speak both Arabic and English fluently, so we are getting on board,” she continues.

Together, Ms. Gatjiek and some eighty other participants, including political leaders, newly appointed female members of Unity State’s parliament and traditional authorities were revisiting the well-known obstacles standing in the way for women’s participation in South Sudanese public life. They stressed how these harmful practices stall the progress of women and hence that of the nation itself.

Community chief Kebino Paluay Deng pointed out that being present and actively taking part are two entirely different concepts.

“Men are always in the majority at workshops, trainings and discussions like this one, but here women are not just sitting there but are speaking up for themselves and advocating for better conditions,” he noted approvingly.

A lot of work remains, however, to achieve anything close to gender equality in South Sudan, starting with females’ adequate participation in decision-making processes. The revitalized peace agreement signed in September stipulates that women are entitled to at least 35 per cent political representation, but so far this goal is far from being met.

According to Mariama Dauda, a Civil Affairs Officer serving with the peacekeeping mission, the concerns about women’s active involvement in public life could not have been better timed.

“If the peace agreement is fully and timely implemented, South Sudan may conduct democratic elections next year, and with women making up maybe 60 per cent of the population, their adequate mobilization could be a real game changer,” she said, urging current female politicians to get to work.

Her point was not lost on the women in attendance.

“If elections were to be held tomorrow, they would already meet us women prepared,” said Marien Nyarek Gatjiek, determined to no longer be left behind.

According to Dag Atiu Pagah, a newly elected member of Unity State’s parliament, for women’s votes to have a real impact, their mobilization will need to take place also in rural and remote areas of the country.

“I know the fighting spirit of South Sudanese women, and I know that the life and development of this nation are of great concern to them. As soon as it will be possible to navigate through the floods, we shall be going to the villages to initiate this process,” she assured those assembled, referring to the devastating effects of several months of flooding in the state.

While the struggle for more room in the political salons may sometimes be fierce, dangers in flooded areas are more immediate.

“I just can’t describe how these floods are affecting us,” said Theresa Nyak, a tearful former adviser to the state government, before finding the right words.

“Women have to cover very long distances to get firewood, they are being haunted and beaten by snakes slithering in the wet grass, not to mention being preyed upon by armed men prowling these murky areas to satisfy their sexual desires,” she lamented.

Offering comfort, and while thanking the UN and humanitarian partners for relief efforts to deal with the dire consequences of an excess of water, Habiba Luk, the state’s Minister of Roads and Bridges, offered hope and consolation.

“I am asking you not to lose hope. Someday, these flood waters will recede,” she said as she closed the fruitful discussions of the forum.