Why women are vital to the peace process in war-torn South Sudan


On 12 September, the sides at war in South Sudan signed a much-anticipated peace agreement. This is the latest effort to bring peace to the world’s newest state, which has been plagued by conflict since December 2013. In order to achieve sustained peace, participation of women in peace processes and peacebuilding activities remains important.

Members of the United Church Women’s Association group in Maar, South Sudan, share tea at a meeting. Photo: Tom Price

Women suffer  

One of the courageous women on the frontline of local-level peacebuilding is Mama Harriet Baka, Provincial Coordinator at the Mother’s Union, the largest women’s ministry in South Sudan. Harriet works closely with church and community leaders to promote peace and economic development for women, such as income generating programmes. I met Harriet during a visit to Juba earlier this year. 

‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,’ says Harriet. ‘In South Sudan, women and girls carry a disproportionate burden of the conflict. When I travel across South Sudan, the stories I hear from women and girls are heartbreaking.’

Armed conflict and displacement has intensified violence against women and girls in South Sudan. Research by the International Rescue Committee and Georgetown University’s Global Women’s Institute in South Sudan shows that up to 65 per cent of the women interviewed had experienced either sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. 

‘Many women told me that they are no longer human beings, as they have lost their dignity,’ Harriet continues. ‘The most important thing for everyone in South Sudan is peace.’ 

Important peacebuilders

Harriet highlights the importance of building the capacity of women in mediation and leadership skills. It is vital that they are fully included in both high-level peace negotiations and local reconciliation and peacebuilding initiatives. 

‘Women, youth and traditional leaders at grassroots need to be supported to bring communities together and find common interests across political and ethnic divides,’ says Harriet. 

She adds: ‘It is also important to strengthen the feedback mechanisms from the high-level peace agreements to ordinary citizens and ensure that their voice is heard in peace negotiations and initiatives.’ 

Harriet is part of the South Sudanese Women’s Network for Peace. She says that women in South Sudan engage in peacebuilding in many ways, from taking part in monthly peace prayers to organising peaceful processions. Women are also active in writing peace statements and sharing them with the media, as well as raising awareness of peace agreements with citizens across the country.

Women clear weeds in a demonstration plot at a field farmer school project near the town of Warawar in Aweil, South Sudan. Photo: Will Swanson

‘In South Sudan, women and girls carry a disproportionate burden of the conflict.’

In the margins

And yet women still remain in the margins when it comes to formal peace negotiations. 

‘Peacebuilding in the context of South Sudan is still perceived as the work of men,’ Harriet says. There are cultural norms undermining women’s political participation. Most community leaders are men and many peacebuilding activities are targeted at them. 

Lasting contribution  

Research by UN Women, however, shows that when women participate in peace processes, the resulting agreement is 35 per cent more likely to last at least 15 years.1

In South Sudan, many women across the country continue to engage in grassroots peacebuilding. Women’s organisations have also been represented in high-level peace negotiations. The new peace deal, for example, includes a 35 per cent quota of executive appointments reserved for women. 

If peace is to last in South Sudan it remains crucial that women’s full potential and their positive contribution to peace is acknowledged, supported and celebrated.

1UN Women Peace and Security Facts and Figures http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/peace-and-security/facts-and-figures

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Sini Maria Heikkila
Sini Maria Heikkila is Humanitarian Policy Officer at Tearfund. Email: sini.heikkila@tearfund.org