Leading the fight for gender equality and an end to violence against women in South Sudan

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A lifelong advocate for women and children’s rights, Elizabeth Henry started the "Mother & Childcare” organization 24-years ago in Aweil and relentlessly works to ensure women are allocated seats at the top table in local government. Photo by Rabindra Giri/UNMISS.

19 Jun 2024

Leading the fight for gender equality and an end to violence against women in South Sudan

Rabindra Giri

NORTHERN BAHR EL GHAZAL - Elizabeth Henry is the founding chair and Executive Director of Women in Local Government Administration which is working to ensure women are allocated at least 35 per cent of seats in local governments.

“The biggest problem in South Sudan is to change how society views the role of women and children because that is the root of it all,” says 50-year-old Elizabeth Henry.

A lifelong crusader for women’s and children’s rights, Elizabeth started a Non-Governmental Organization named “Mother & Childcare” in 2000 in Aweil, Northern Bahr El Ghazal.

“Many local laws in different states still view girls and women as commodities, something to be paid as compensation to resolve conflicts between warring parties,” she says. She is referring to the practice of paying a “blood price” in states like Unity and Eastern Equatoria where girls are given to compensate an aggrieved party who lost a family or community member. It is essentially an incentive to bring peace between the warring parties. “This is a horrible practice that must be stopped,” she says.

Married at 16, Elizabeth became a full-time wife and mother, but she was determined to continue her education and found time over the years to complete a law degree as well as raise five children, who are now also pursuing higher education.

The daughter of a regional police chief she says she was lucky to be able to manage the time and scrape together some resources to continue studying between long breaks and bouts of displacement throughout the conflicts that eventually saw South Sudan gain independence.

But it was only when she was attending a training on local governance in 2018 that she noticed she was the sole female participant.

“That was when I realized that the only way women could ever close the gap with men was by being active participants in governance,” says Elizabeth.  

That idea gave birth to Women in Local Government Administration (WiLGA) and she credits the United Nations Development Programme and German Corporation for International Cooperation for supporting the organization.

Most recently, Elizabeth co-chaired a capacity building workshop for women in local governance in partnership with the Gender Affairs Unit of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

The event brought together more than 50 women working in local government administration across all 10 states, women from NGOs and, importantly, male local chiefs who oversee customary courts.

“The biggest misperception is that many women and men in our country don’t know that sexual and gender-based violence is a crime – they are led to believe that it is a part of the culture which they must accept,” says Elizabeth in her opening remarks.

UNMISS has partnered with WiLGA since 2023 to train and recruit a new cohort of educated women who can serve on local government boards and, over time, influence decisions in their respective jurisdictions for gender equality and the eradication of all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, including conflict related sexual violence.

Elizabeth is candid when she says they continue to face many challenges, but that every small achievement and every male or female advocate they win over will help to turn the tide towards greater gender equality in South Sudan.

“The male local chiefs are critical advocates for our cause, because they are the ones who oversee the customary courts at the Payam and village level – and if they believe that existing laws are discriminatory and wrong – then we have won half the battle,” she says.

On the legislative front too, there is hope. Currently pending are two laws in draft from which, when passed, will ensure that women rights to protection and equality are firmly entrenched: the Draft Family Law and Draft Anti-Gender-Based Violence Prevention Bill.

As part of the peace deal in 2018, it was decreed that 35 percent of parliamentary seats be allocated to women.  Some women already serve in senior government posts, including that of Vice President.

However, Elizabeth says that the battle is far from over. In fact, it is just beginning.

“Legislation alone cannot guarantee that women will be protected and accorded equal opportunities for participation – but it will help lay the foundation for future generations of girls and women who will one day become leaders for a more just and equitable South Sudan.”

Meanwhile, she hopes that the government’s positive responses and approach as well as the partnerships with the United Nations and other development organizations, will help to cement women’s rights as inalienable and inclusive.