Photo credit: Saferworld
Photo credit: Saferworld

Women “breaking the chains of fear” in South Sudan

Ongoing conflict and inter-ethnic violence and tensions have left communities divided in Wau and other parts of South Sudan. By exchanging household goods and coming together to talk, women from both sides of the fractured city of Wau have set out to bring their communities back together.

“There were rumours that if we go to other areas of the city, we would be killed,” says Agum Majak, an ethnic Dinka woman from the eastern part of Wau. Following decades of on-and-off civil war, Wau was again caught up in violence in 2016 when it was divided between the Dinka people – settling in areas like Hai Dinka, Jebel Akhdar, Hei Jedid and Eastern Bank – and members of the ‘Fertit’ tribes living in Lokoloko, Jebel Kheir and Hai Salam. With tensions running high between the two groups, for years there was little movement or communication between them.

Agum says she has seen conflict between the Dinka, largely pastoralists, and ‘Fertit’, who are agriculturists, fuelled by ethnic stereotyping, since the days before South Sudan’s independence in 2011. This has sometimes led to physical altercations and violent clashes, leading to lost lives and the destruction of property.

The civil war that erupted in December 2013 further damaged the relationships between Wau’s communities, taking on an ethnic dimension and deepening rifts created by the war for independence years earlier.

Continued ethnic discrimination and a host of grievances, such as the relationships between cattle herders and farmers over land, worsened tensions between the Dinka and the ‘Fertit’.

Symbols of unity

With support from Saferworld, in 2017 the South Sudanese NGO Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO), sought to work with the communities to address this situation. CEPO identified 150 women and invited them to form a community group for both Dinka and ‘Fertit’, training them in peacebuilding as a way to improve relations. “We wanted to break the chains of fear, suspicion and mistrust among our people,” says Agum.

After the training, the women involved went back to their communities and organised exchange visits between women of the two groups to share household items. This was based on the South Sudanese value of ‘eating from the same plate’, which represents fraternity. “When we received the training, I felt empowered to undertake something for peace and unity among our people in Wau,” says Mary Sabino, from Jebel Kheir, who came up with the idea of exchanging gifts.

Mary and the other women collected money from members of their ‘Fertit’ community to buy basic household goods such as salt, soap and sugar, and then shared them with women from other communities. During the exchange visits, women had the chance to get to know each other, exchange telephone numbers and make plans to see each other again.

“We faced difficulties in the first few visits but with time more women gained confidence and started joining,” says Mary. The visits started in Lokoloko, Jebel Kheir and Eastern Bank, and are still continuing in these areas to this day.

A total of 85 households have been reached by the women’s groups over the past year. By talking to each other, many of the harmful rumours and stereotypes have been dispelled and friendships have formed across ethnic lines. “We were surprised to be warmly welcomed by other women during our visit to Lokoloko,” says Agum.

“Day-to-day living in Wau is based on fear and a lack of trust,” says Peter Machar, Saferworld’s Policy, Advocacy and Communications Coordinator in South Sudan. “It is based on the belief that communities are against you or that the government favours one particular community. Person-to-person initiatives like these are crucial for bridging the gaps between communities and reaching out to other groups to address tensions.”

The visits have also positively affected men, with many praising the women for coming together, saying it will eventually unite the people of Wau who have been ripped apart by conflict.

Sarah, a woman from Lokoloko, says that informal one-to-one visits are now taking place in some areas as trust grows between women of different ethnic groups. “When you hear rumours of insecurity, now you can call your friend from the other side.”