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In South Sudan, a country affected by decades of conflict, keeping a fragile peace requires more than just the absence of war.
By Sandra Bulling, CI Communications Officer, email@example.com
The road to Nagdiar village is bordered by lush green grasslands reaching up to the horizon. On a peaceful morning in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, swarms of white birds fly playfully over the meadow, swinging up and down through the hot air. Grey thatched roofs atop roundhouses can be glimpsed through the grass, and mothers with their children stroll along the path to the local river on the way to wash their clothes.
In Nagdiar’s primary school, the village’s only concrete building, CARE project manager Samuel Mule works hard to make sure this morning of peace is one that lasts. A group of women and men sit on the small wooden benches, listening intently to his explanations. They all know the opposite of peace rather too well: conflict and civil war. Now they want to learn how to keep a fragile harmony within their community in a country that has just been formed after decades of violent struggle for independence.
South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world. It is also one of the poorest. While peace has officially been restored, the daily reality in many of the country’s regions is overshadowed by violent fighting between different ethnic groups, communities and armed groups. Almost 50 years of civil war have left their mark on each and every South Sudanese. And while peace is desired by many people, it is often difficult for communities to learn how to resolve conflict without weapons.
Peace – the full package
“People are tired of war, they want to embrace peace” says Samuel. But they are too poor to afford it. “Peace is more than just the absence of conflict. Peace must be comprehensive. People need food, water, an income and basic health services so they can sustain their lives and don’t need to fight over resources. Especially young people are often frustrated, they have no job and they don’t see their government providing much assistance. Bluntly speaking, they do not see the benefit of peace.” Peace then needs to come in a full package. It must include skills training, job opportunities, agricultural support, hospitals, schools and a trustful government to help people overcoming poverty. “If people have enough food, they don’t need to steal their neighbours’ cattle,” as one man in Samuel’s group sums it up.
In the classroom Samuel explains how CARE and its partners are assisting Nagdiar‘s community to find peaceful solutions to their daily conflicts. He and his colleagues have helped the village setting up a peace committee, consisting of four women and seven men who met regularly to solve local conflicts and restore trust amongst former adversaries. They bring people belonging to different ethnicities to the table, finding common ground over issues such as land disputes, dowry payments, stolen cattle and grazing rights for cattle, people’s main possession and source of income.
“No peace without women”
CARE also established Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) in Nagdiar, where mainly women participate. Together they save small amounts of money for a basic fund to take out loans and set up small businesses. “We need to ensure that women are involved in the community. By receiving an income, they also earn respect and have a say in the community”, says Samuel. Nyathow Odeng is the chair of the local women’s group. She is also one of the four female members of the peace committee. “There cannot be peace without women. Women need to become stronger and participate more. We need more education and training”, says the 36-year old widow and mother of eight children.
During Samuel’s information session Nyathow learned that South Sudan’s constitution requires 25 per cent of female representation at all levels of government administration. “I have never heard that before. How can we become more involved?” she asks. CARE aims to build this crucial bridge to local government authorities. The peace committee learns how to bring unresolved disputes to the attention of the government – and how to demand basic social services from the authorities. “At the same time, we train government officials to understand human rights and implement laws to protect their citizens from violence and abuses. We want to dissolve distrust between citizens and their government and foster mutual understanding, so they can break down prejudices and open up for discussion”, CARE staffer Samuel explains. Overall, CARE’s ‘Peace under Construction Program’ is training 50 women like Nyathow to become role models and to actively participate in building peace in their community.
As the afternoon sun settles over Nagdiar, the peace committee members dissolve into all directions of the village, returning to their daily chores. “We are proud to be a member of the committee and to contribute to a peaceful society,” says Nyathow just before leaving. After all, she is playing an active role building up her country from scratch – a task that certainly requires the long breath of patience from everyone involved.