South Sudan Institute Leaders Tackle Child Marriage and Conflict’s Economic Effects on Women and Girls

“We quickly learned that in post-conflict societies, economic empowerment is key. Women affected by conflict would ask, ‘you are teaching us about peace but shall we eat peace?’” Juliet Were says, explaining the decision to include a livelihood enhancement module in the Leadership Institute’s peace and security curriculum.

The 2015/2016 Isis-WICCE institute to equip 24 change makers in Central Equatoria State, South Sudan, with specific knowledge and skills, was preceded by an assessment of the state of peace and security. The team identified key conflict triggers, persisting post-conflict gaps and women’s specific needs in response to the pervasive sexual and gender-based violence. As such, while the training provided a necessary foundation for the 24 to influence South Sudan’s peace processes, it included a specific focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as livelihood enhancement strategies.

“Our model affirms that all change starts from the personal. We tell them, ‘do not sit and wait, what resources do you have that can be utilized?’” Juliet explains. With practical training on ways to improve individual and family livelihoods, the institute participants were charged with passing on the information and tools to their fellow community members.

While in Munuki, Juba county, Juliet observes the trainees dialogue with a group of 25 women, answering their questions on strategies to address economic hardships. “Regina gave the women ideas on how to be innovative and courageous while doing business,” she recounts. She also challenged them to make long-term changes in their attitudes so as to adapt to the pinching economic crisis without turning to dubious means.

Working in two groups of ten and fourteen, the institute trainees are also visiting schools, and churches to address issues of sexual and gender based violence. One of the pressing issues for the team is the increasing child marriage due to growing poverty and social hardship. “Girls are being orphaned due to conflict and have no hope that they will finish school,” Juliet explains. Financially constrained caregivers also view marriage as a solution for the girls.

For this reason, the institute trainees have started holding dialogues in six schools to sensitize girls, teachers and parents or caregivers against early marriage and on the value of staying in school and being educated. To ensure a support system for these ideas, the trainees are enabling these schools to form girls’ clubs. They are also hosting conversations with parents to discuss girls’ sexuality, the risks of child marriage and to discuss prospects for addressing the challenges that increase the girls’ vulnerability.

For girls, this platform is an opportunity to reflect on real-life challenges for which they previously had no outlet or information source. During a recent school dialogue, Juliet recalls the words of a schoolgirl saying, “This space allows us to discuss issues that concern us girls. Our request is that more of these are organized on a continuous basis and for all girls, not just a few of us, to participate.