"The reality of life for women in the world's newest country is harsh; it is full of challenges and limited opportunities. Access to healthcare and education in South Sudan is simply not an option in many places. The statistics speak for themselves: more than 80% of women are illiterate and one in seven women die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. But the greatest challenge women experience is the social acceptance of sexual and gender based violence. The UN's theme for this year's International Women's Day is "Time for action to end violence against women". The organisation I am working for as a VSO volunteer the South Sudan Women Empowerment Network (SSWEN) will be calling for this, in partnership with civil society and the government. Nationally, there will be a further focus on the importance of educated women and girls.
Access to justice, particularly for women, is fading without an effective, functioning judicial system. The current system is often in conflict with customary community courts. For example, traditional cultural practices allow for women and girls to be forced to marry as compensation for the crimes committed by their families, despite early marriage being made illegal in the South Sudan Child Act of 2008. I have been volunteering through VSO with SSWEN to strengthen their organisational capacity in order to respond to some of these challenges.
We have developed a project aiming to educate young people about their rights as part of a global initiative called 'Girls Not Brides' which uses drama as a means of creating a safe space for dialogue. Working with young people about their rights and how the law should protect them has been one of the most memorable experiences of my time in South Sudan. However, there are still too many women in South Sudan who do not realise they are entitled to free healthcare if they are pregnant, that their children are entitled to free primary education, or that they have a legal right to a share in the estates of their deceased husband, which is often passed over to his family.
SSWEN has been raising awareness about people's rights in the country's Transitional Constitution so that women can hold their leaders to account. The organisation has brought women together from all over the country to the capital, Juba, for two national conferences and regularly holds intensive training sessions with communities. With the help of UN Women and Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), we provide attendees with a simplified Bill of Rights booklet translated in both Arabic and English. In one of these training sessions, a female chief stood up and told us that this guide would aid her in raising awareness of women's rights. She also said she would refer to it when residing over conflicts in her community. It was an extremely powerful moment, one that demonstrates the need for more leaders to champion women's rights in South Sudan.
This critical process of raising awareness, giving people access to information and creating spaces for female leaders to meet and engage with others must be accompanied by gender equality training and commitments from the police, army, the judicial system and legislative frameworks. SSWEN recently worked with the NGO Global Communities to increase the skills and knowledge among female leaders in advocating against sexual and gender based violence, with emphasis on using the media. A State Minister of Gender who attended this workshop was truly inspirational. Mary Apai said: "I fight for my rights and for women to do something to make South Sudan move forward. Women's leaders are suffering; they go through trauma and are not respected in their own homes. Even as a minister you are still expected to serve tea and food. Lets wake up and start the first step: and this workshop is one of the first steps."
SSWEN are helping women become more confident in putting themselves forward for leadership roles and training them with the necessary skills and knowledge to serve. While globally only 17% of ministers in governments across the world are women, the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan includes a clause that 25% of elected positions are to be held by women, which shows there is some high-level commitment to women's representation. However, we need to strengthen the support behind the 25% obligation in order for it to become a reality.
These problems are not unique to South Sudan. Indeed, International Women's Day is a chance to recognise the commonalities in women's experiences that exist across the world. It should also remind us that the international community can play a part in encouraging states to implement measures that promote women's empowerment. Over the next few months discussions about the framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will intensify. As part of the post-2015 process, VSO is calling for a strengthened goal on gender equality, with specific targets on female representation at both the national and local level. This would galvanise political will around the issue and ensure that more is being done to protect women's rights in countries where they are only beginning to be recognised. The lesson from South Sudan is that supporting the empowerment of women to demand their rights is one of the first steps towards reducing the marginalisation and discrimination they face. But engagement with men and women, the government and community leaders who hold the power should also to be at the forefront of change."