ROSELINE NZELLE NKWELLE
Born in Juba, South Sudan, Edea Sharon grew up in refugee camps in neighboring Uganda. Now 40 years old, she is the mother of two children. But her role as a parent began early in life. As the firstborn she was like a second mother to her siblings and at the age of 25 she started paying for their education. Edea holds two master’s degrees, one in global governance and the other in sustainable international development and coexistence in conflicts. She is currently working towards a PhD in Conflict Studies while working full time as a Gender Officer at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
** Q: What prompted you to become responsible for gender issues? **
I spent my youth in refugee camps. I think this is why I have always felt compelled to fight against inequalities, injustice and girls’ right to education. I became responsible for gender because my personal values align with the United Nations global mandate on gender issues. There is an overwhelming injustice across this country that cries out for the attention of any enlightened and conscious South Sudanese woman. My goal is to move up the professional ladder and to occupy a position of responsibility because I feel responsible for gender inequality and discrimination against women and girls in my country. Women are worse off than men simply because they are women.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing women and girls in South Sudan?
A: Common hardships for an ordinary South Sudanese woman or girl range from sexual and physical assault, domestic violence, early and forced marriage, and emotional abuse. She runs the risk of being assaulted in her daily activities, both inside and outside of her own community; she has no privacy at home; no right to choose the man of his dreams. The triple burden of production, reproduction and community management rests on her shoulders, but she is not considered suitable for leadership roles in the public domain. Customs and traditions don’t help either. Even when the state makes amends in terms of laws – for example, current land laws contain provisions relating to women’s land ownership – traditions and customs continue to hold them back. Women’s land rights are always arbitrated by male relatives. So you have to ask yourself what happens if a woman does not have a male parent. This is a real concern in South Sudan, as most women lost their male relatives during the civil war.
Q: How do you think the work you do every day helps alleviate the issues women face here?
I deal with the insecurities women and girls face and ensure that security measures and mechanisms are in place to minimize any potential risk. For example, my office advocated for an increase in the number of policewomen and teachers to serve as role models for girls in schools. I accompany girls in search of psychosocial support and put them in touch with structures that can help them, such as religious organizations. I defend women’s rights by engaging and encouraging women leaders to have regular dialogues with government authorities on issues that directly affect them. My office engages community leaders to make women and girls safer and I am part of an organization that investigates issues affecting women and brings them to the attention of local authorities. This has increased community awareness of human rights and justice. Regarding education, I take myself as a model to make parents understand the importance of sending their daughters to school and encourage them to give equal opportunities to young girls and boys.
Q: In your opinion, why is it important to ensure that women are represented equally at all levels of politics, peacebuilding and decision-making in a society?
Women and girls are the most affected by violent conflict in South Sudan and continue to bear the brunt of the challenges in the aftermath of the civil war. Leaving them out of politics, decision-making and all other development and peacebuilding-oriented processes is to exclude their views, opinions and rights. Who will speak for them or represent their views in the places where policies are made? Structural violence is a stumbling block for peace processes across South Sudan. The under-representation of women and their low participation in decision-making in this country greatly contributes to the persistence of conflicts in several ways. With their negotiating skills as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, South Sudanese women have the potential to be skillful peacemakers. In addition, most households in South Sudan are managed by women. How to talk about sustainable development if women are not taken into account? If you exclude our women, you exclude more than half of the population.
Q: Tell us why the fight for gender equality is so important to a young country like South Sudan?
A: Understanding the barriers women face is a key entry point to tackling violence against women. Helping communities talk about these issues helps reduce some of the barriers women face in accessing leadership positions. Women’s participation is not only a basic human right but also an operational necessity and in a young nation like South Sudan, the representation and participation of women in all processes has a direct impact on peace negotiations and their durability. If we are serious about improving conflict resolution strategies and preventing violence, we need to take a gender sensitive approach to understand the factors that contribute to the exclusion of women and other minorities in the country. Unless we take steps to create an environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of age, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, class, language, religion or any other difference, we will not see sustainable peace and development.
Q: Why do you think the annual 16 Days of Activism are so crucial?
As we have to talk about gender-based violence throughout the year, the annual 16 Days of Activism allows us to raise awareness of the enduring nature of gender-based violence and its horrific effects on women and children. The energy that flows during these 16 days is magical, as international organizations, women’s networks and all stakeholders galvanize their resources to reach out to survivors. It is a time for sharing information and best practices that could lead to better strategies to eliminate gender-based violence. The 16 days of activism are crucial for the women of South Sudan because during this time no one can stop them from coming out and taking a stand against the harmful practices. They allow us to take a stand against violence and encourage everyone to work together to find lasting solutions.
Q: What are the key moments in your career where you have made a tangible difference for young women and girls in this country? Give us some examples.
A: I started working for women and girls in South Sudan at Plan International. It was there that I developed a passion for telling stories of women. Two years later, I moved to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and worked with the Civil Affairs Division, where I raised awareness about the involvement of women in the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. In addition, working in human resources with Deloitte gave me an incredible window to see the participation of women in the development process. I helped establish new centers of income-generating activities and supported underprivileged women and girls. I decided to help not only young girls but also boys in the same way that I have been helped by mentoring and making them aware of the many scholarship opportunities to further their education. Today, as a gender specialist at UNMISS, I help build the functional and technical capacities of women’s organizations to enable them to advocate and negotiate while working with state and county authorities to increase their representation and participation in peacebuilding.
Q: Have you personally been the victim of prejudice because of your gender?
A: Absoutely. I was refused higher education and expected to get married. But I was lucky and motivated by my teachers who were like a beacon guiding me.
Q: If you had a message for young women in South Sudan and around the world, what would it be?
A: As we celebrate 16 days of activism, I want to encourage the displaced women in Bentiu who have been severely affected by the catastrophic floods here. All of their income-generating activities are at a standstill, but I want them to know that we are all with them. The same goes for all women who have experienced some form of violence – we are all here for you and do our best to make sure that no woman is ever abused again.