Former President Sirleaf, Fellow Nobel Laureate Inspire the Women South Sudan
Juba– South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, looked to Liberia for lessons on how to empower its women to maintain the peace and advance gender equality as the 11-year-old nation develops a new constitution that will pave the way for its first democratic elections in 2025.
Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf delivered the keynote address at South Sudan’s first International Women’s Conference on Transformational Leadership at the Radisson on February 13-15 in Juba. The conference attracted nearly 500 national and international women leaders from 15 countries including Liberia, Mauritius, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia Kenya, Australia, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and others.
South Sudan’s Vice President responsible for the Gender and Youth Cluster Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior (widow of the late Sudan People’s Liberation, SPLM leader Dr. John Garang) hosted the conference in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare; the National Transformational Leadership Institute at the University of Juba; and the United Nations under the leadership of Sara Beysolow Nyanti, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the UN Mission in South Sudan and Resident Coordinator of the UN system and Humanitarian coordinator.
In addition to Sirleaf, South Sudan invited Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee and seven Liberian feminist activists, working in civil society, to participate in the three-day conference.
When Beysolow Nyanti conceptualized the idea of the conference and got the buy-in and approval of President Salva Kiir and Vice President Nyandeng, Sirleaf was the first person she contacted. Beysolow Nyanti recalls hand delivering the letter to Sirleaf which she said was key to ensuring that a conference in Africa would get the traction it required. Nyandeng on her part said that Liberia and South Sudan share similar experiences. Both countries experienced war, and women mobilized to bring peace and participated in transforming their respective countries. Liberia would go on to have Africa’s first democratically elected woman president.
“In my discussion with Rebecca, she reflected on the Liberian experience and for South Sudan to learn from our experience”, Sirleaf told participants via live video conference. “I have committed to work with the various stakeholders to achieve this objective, starting with our participation in this conference. South Sudan is our continent’s youngest Republic, and we all have a responsibility to support nation-building.’’
Madam Sirleaf recognized the role of the people of South Sudan in peacebuilding and the efforts of key actors, including women and UN agencies to advance gender equality. She cited President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s government’s decision to reserve 35 percent of governance positions for women. So far, the country has reached 33 percent of women’s representation in governance. South Sudan has a woman speaker of parliament and eight cabinet ministers including the Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
“We are made proud each day when we learn of what looks like giant baby steps taken by the strong and resilient women of South Sudan to keep Africa’s newest country as one big unit,’’ Sirleaf said.
While acknowledging the gains, Sirleaf said South Sudan faces multiple forms of discrimination and barriers: two million women who are malnourished; 75 percent of girls are illiterate; increase in conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, especially in the displaced camps; women lack access to sanitation; and 45 percent of girls get married before the age of 18.
Educating girls must be a priority. “That will be one of the keys to your success,’ Sirleaf said. Women are game changers when they are protected in the socio-economic and political system, she said. She reminded South Sudan about Pope Francis’ message to them during his pilgrimage from Feb 3-5.
The Holy Father urged South Sudan to respect its women and children because they make up most of the country’s population. Women comprise 60 percent of the country’s population of 10 million, and youth make up 75 percent.
When women are given opportunities to develop in an enabling environment, “South Sudan will be peaceful and it will transform before our very eyes,’’ Sirleaf said. “I believe in the women of South Sudan. Continue to stand side-by-side with your men to build the prosperous nation you deserve.’’
Madam Sirleaf recognized Beysolow Nyanti for her commitment to the people of South Sudan and noted that she was proud of this “strong, dynamic Liberian woman.’’
Beysolow Nyanti said when she accepted the post in South Sudan, she was charged with the task of shifting the UN’s programming from humanitarian to development. South Sudan, she said, cannot develop without including its women in leadership and listening to their perspectives on the implementation of the peace agreement, and the constitution, and actively engaging them in the electoral process.
“Coming to South Sudan was a gift and a blessing,’’ she said. “When you are called to serve the youngest nation in the world, you embrace it and engage stakeholders from around the world to help, ‘’ she said. “This conference is about my fundamental belief in the approach to nation-building. Building and fixing nations cannot happen without women.’’
Beysolow Nyanti was lauded by donors such as Norway and the Netherlands for mobilizing women and resources from around the world to support the conference. Some of the high-profile speakers at the conference included Mauritius’ former President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Catherine Samba-Panza, former president of the Central African Republic, and local and national women leaders in South Sudan and from the United Nations.