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South Sudan, 7 December 2015: Strong women supported by gender-based violence project

By Marianna Zaichykova and Ashley Hamer

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Hamer
The women-friendly space in Malakal Protection of Civilians (PoC) site run by UNICEF and partner IMC is much more than just a tent, it’s a support centre. On Sunday afternoons, the tent is filled with women of all ages.

 
In South Sudan, UNICEF focusses its most extensive gender-based violence project on women displaced by war who are raising their families in Protection of Civilians sites alone.

MALAKAL, South Sudan, 7 December 2015 – The hot tent buzzed with chatter; women were everywhere.

Teenagers braided the hair of their mothers and aunts, young girls painted each other’s toenails bright green and dabbed pretty henna patterns onto their wrists.

On Saturday afternoons, around 40 women of all ages gather at this small tent, or women’s centre, set up in an ethnic Shilluk section of Malakal Protection of Civilians (PoC) site. This is one of the two UNICEF supported women’s centres in Malakal PoC with the second location providing services in the ethnic Nuer section.

More than 50,000 people are sheltering in Malakal PoC. The site sits close to the banks of the River Nile in South Sudan’s conflict-torn Upper Nile State.

Women and girls make up the overwhelming majority of the camp’s inhabitants – more than 25,000 people. Communities inside are protected from armed groups beyond the perimeter by the United Nations peacekeeping force.

From Malakal PoC, UNICEF and its partner organisations lead their largest emergency gender-based violence (GBV) response, facilitating civilian access to medical and psychosocial support services.

One element of the initiative is providing safe places for women to comfort and support one another.

Many families have been confined to the PoC since December 2013, when South Sudan plunged into civil war.

Now, conflict has raged for almost two years, leaving tens of thousands of people dead, an estimated two million displaced and almost four million facing hunger.

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Hamer
Young women dab black henna dye onto their eyebrows and hairlines inside the women-friendly space.

“We come to this women-friendly space because here we can have some time to breathe,” said mother-of-four Abuan Odok in Malakal.

“We can get away from the mud, we can talk to each other, share our problems, support our sisters and for a while we can forget our life in the PoC,” she added.

For those inside Malakal PoC life is crowded, dirty and treacherous. Families are crammed together in ragged canvas tents and tin shacks, which often house up to 10 people.

During the months of the rainy season, the entire PoC turns to a muddy swamp and deadly water-borne diseases such as malaria prey on children and their families.

Women risk their lives when they leave the camp, but they continue to do so in order to search for basic essentials like food, charcoal and firewood – in short, to ensure their families’ survival.

Beyond the perimeter boundary lies Malakal Town: once the thriving capital of Upper Nile State. But successive battles have left it destroyed and occupied mainly by soldiers.

Outside there is no protection and civilians face rape, abduction and death.

Inside the camp, women are responsible for almost every family and livelihood task.

“[Women] are the ones protecting the family … but services are mostly structured for adult men. Women’s trauma is not taken care of,” said Masumi Yamashina, a gender based violence specialist with UNICEF.

Sexual and gender-based violence is rife. Stigma and fear of being ostracised act as a barrier between survivors and life-saving services. Perpetrators are rarely punished.

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Hamer
As well as providing a safe haven for women to relax, UNICEF also uses the women-friendly space as a place to disseminate information about gender-based, sexual and domestic violence.

“Women often do not even know they have experienced gender based violence and so they keep silent” said Angelina Jok, a displaced camp resident, mother-of-one, who supports the work with the women in Malakal.

“My job is to tell the girls about what services are available and the importance of reporting an incident and getting medical treatment within 72 hours,” she said. The first 72 hours following an incident of sexual violence is the critical window for preventing HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted diseases.

UNICEF and its partner organisation, International Medical Corps (IMC), also use the women’s centres and support workers like Angelina to disseminate key messages among PoC communities on how to report sexual violence and harassment and where to seek help.

In a separate part of the Malakal PoC, an area occupied mainly by displaced Nuer families, another group of 15 women is gathering with a purpose.

“This is a numeracy project targeting adult women to teach basic numbers and business skills so they can manage their own money,” said Amoda James, a UNICEF education specialist.

These women meet weekly; they volunteered for the project eight months ago and elected a secretary, accountant and record-keeper.

The project is supported by UNICEF and implemented by partner organisation War Child Canada.

Group members pool cash and provide loans to each other to start small businesses in the camp – including selling charcoal and chillies or baking bread.

Then as their businesses grow they repay the money with interest and the wealth of the group grows, explained James.

Group members also contribute to a ‘social fund’ which can be used for loans for emergency expenses such as a child’s medical treatment.

The majority of these women cannot read or write and most of their husbands are absent.

© UNICEF/2015/South Sudan/Hamer
Wanding Galuak, the group’s secretary.

“It is very important for women to learn to earn, control and to save our own money,” said Wanding Galuak, the group’s secretary. “Men should not control the business, they are not here and they do not know the needs of their children.”

The goal for this group is to raise enough money to open a roadside tea-shop.

But priority funding for these types of small, women-focused development operations is severely lacking.

UNICEF’s Masumi Yamashina said the burden for displaced women in South Sudan’s PoCs – most raising large families entirely alone – is enormous and they need support.

“A women-friendly space costs nearly nothing, but it makes so much difference in providing comfort and normalcy for women and girls,” said Yamashina.

“Women are the ones who are actively protecting each other, protecting their families … if South Sudan’s women are distressed and stopped taking care of the family, there would be no more lifesaving in this country.”

 

 
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