Ellen and Gbowee inspire Int’l Women’s Confab
-In 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 Blu Hotel February 13-15. The conference attracted 430 national and international women leaders from 15 countries including Liberia, Mauritius, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia Kenya, Yemen, Egypt and others.
South Sudan’s Vice President for the Gender and Youth Cluster Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior (wife of the famous 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 civil society and women rights advocates from Liberia 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, women mobilized to bring peace and participated in transforming their respective countries. Liberia would go on to elect Africa’s first female 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 lauded South Sudan for its stride for peace and the efforts to advance gender equality. She cited President Salva Kiir Mayardit government’s decision to reserve 35 percent of governance positions for women. So far, the country has reached 33 percent women representation in governance. South Sudan has a female speaker and eight cabinet ministers including a female minister of defense.
“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; 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 switching 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, the constitution and actively engage 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.
Other members of the Liberian delegation included Medina Wesseh, former secretary general of the Mano River Union, representing former President Sirleaf; Cerue Konah Garlo and Vabah Flomo, founding members of Liberian Mass Action for Peace, the women’s group that was influential in ending the war; Cllr. Abla Gadegbeku Williams, one of the leading advocates for the rape law and other legal reforms to protect women; Norwu Harris, a climate justice advocate; Aisha Kolubah, strategic lead of the Liberia Feminist Forum; and Dabah Varpilah, first national vice chair of the Unity Party.
Some members of the Liberian delegation participated in panel discussions.
Nobel Laureate Gbowee shared how Liberian women mobilized to end the war in a discussion on “Women’s Leadership Role in Conflict Resolution and Peace Building.’’ Liberian women insisted on being part of the Accra Peace Talks, she said.
After the peace agreement was signed, eighty women leaders spent three days pouring over the bulky peace agreement to simplify it, so women in the towns and villages across Liberia could understand it. The women set benchmarks for women’s participation in the disarmament process, voter and civic education and governance, Gbowee said.
South Sudanese women, she said, must take advantage of the extended transitional period to redefine what peace means to them. She urged them to avoid peace tourism—traveling to New York, Switzerland and other parts of the world to talk about peace. The Liberian women, she said, stayed home to fight for peace.
“You cannot bring peace to South Sudan in New York,’’ she said. “Peace must be fought at home. Do whatever you can to ensure the peace is solidified in your country. Be involved in the political process to ensure that Africa’s youngest nation succeeds. To the powerful women of South Sudan, do not disappoint your children. It is not about you. It is about the future of your nation. You may not like each other, but you love South Sudan.’’
Konah Garlo participated in two discussions focusing on women’s peace and security and transitional justice. She called on South Sudan’s women to be “intentional and deliberate’ ’about their needs and ensure that their voices are reflected in the constitution and the implementation of the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS).
The agreement calls for governance and security reforms, constitution development and the inclusion of women in key decision-making positions of at least 35 percent in all sectors. It also includes provisions for opportunities to address women’s peace and security, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, economic and financial management reforms and transitional justice. The peace agreement was extended last August due to delays in implementation. Elections were expected to be held in February 2023, but it has been postponed to 2025.
Konah Garlo encouraged the women to build strong networks and mentor and nurture the younger generation. She told them to use community radio stations to advocate for their rights.
Gadegbeku Williams, who represented the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL) to the Accra Peace talk that ended the Liberian civil war, participated in a panel discussion on “Movement Building: Leading in a Digital Age.’’
She urged the women to use google and social media platforms as advocacy tools and for networking and research.
When Liberian women began researching legal reforms on laws that discriminated against women, they scanned piles of documents. Today, the internet and other digital tools make it easier to communicate and conduct research, she said.
“Use the Jehovah- witness style to talk to your sisters on the internet,’ she said. “We should share information and give our voices to our sisters in need.’’
In the panel discussion on “Climate, Conflict and Security: Building Resilience,’’ Harris said women must not be left behind in discussions on climate change.
“Climate change threatens every right we have as women, as humans, as citizens of South Sudan and Africa,’’ she said. “Climate change requires all hands-on deck. It affects everyone regardless of race, age, gender or religion. Climate change does not do a baseline study to see who it affects and why.’’
The historic gathering, dubbed #Guwatamara (Strength of a Woman), discussed six themes: women peace and security; governance and political participation; women’s economic empowerment; climate change and its impact on gender equality; movement building and women’s leadership in civil society; and intergenerational pathways to leadership.
Beysolow Nyanti who opened and closed the conference said that South Sudanese women have been on a journey, they have sojourned at some places, some at which they have stayed too long, and they must rise and go the distance to build the prosperous nation that South Sudan can be.