South Sudan: Healing Trauma and Peacebuilding Go Hand-in-Hand for South Sudan

Margaret Lowilla, programme officer at the Women's International Peace Centre in Juba, South Sudan.
18 November 2021

Cape Town — Welcome to AllAfrica's Silence The Guns series where we focus on peacebuilding on the continent. This is Juanita Williams and today we take closer look at  what the road to peace and peacebuilding is for South Sudan, where the conflict officially ended in 2018.
allAfrica's Juanita Williams and Margaret Lowilla, programme officer at the Women's International Peace Centre in Juba speak about her path from being a fellow at African Leadership Centre (ALC) to her work at Women's International Peace Centre, the research she's done on women and peacebuilding, as well as the impact that Covid-19 has had on the country's peace process.

Excerpts - edited for clarity and flow - listen to the full podcast here

I was with the African Leadership Centre in 2019. I was a fellow for 2019 to 2020. And then during that time, if you remember, actually, that was around the time when, when Covid broke out. It was good that that the organisation was able to re-strategize the programme, right. So earlier, we had gone to London and then come back. But we ended up having to do the final part of our programme online because, you know, people were not travelling anymore. We couldn't go to the centre anymore. Most of the things were shut down. I think in Nairobi, they shut everything down at the end of March. So we were still at the end of our fellowship during that time. So most of our sessions were being taken online now. At the end, a lot of us picking our topics that we wanted to do research on. So we did do research and, and we were allocated supervisors who helped us and guided us through that process. During that time, the ALC also started a an open series on Covid-19 to highlight the things that were happening around Africa and how Covid-19 was starting to impact some of the things. I contributed to that op-ed series, but I wanted to highlight the agency of South Sudanese youth and how they kind of came together and started responding within their neighbourhoods.

And then 2021 I came to Juba in February, my ALC research paper was focusing on South Sudanese women's participation after independence. So from 2011.  And so I got the opportunity to actually work with the coalition, I volunteered there for about three months, which was, it was lovely, it was a great experience to kind of have researched the work of the coalition, and then now come and be a part of what they were doing. And then after that, I applied for this job. I was largely interested in it because it has a focus on women, peace and security.

So you're still getting into the projects that you have there. But now I'm interested in your South Sudanese research project that you did with ALC before you left. Can you tell me a bit about that, and you know, why you chose it?

So why I was definitely going to look at the South Sudan context, and to kind of look the dynamics of the peace process. So a lot of the work of South Sudanese women participating is not very well documented, right? So no one has really well, there are a few people, that's not true. There are a few people who have, who have documented some of the work, but it hasn't been, you know, more needs to be done in that sector.

I think that's the case for the whole continent. Actually, some work has been done in some areas, but it really does need more attention.

And for the South Sudan women's coalition, and their participation in these in this last process, it was because so many women groups were able to come together under one sort of vision and use various platforms to get their message out and to get support, that they were able to kind of get some of the gains that they did in the peace process. So for example, getting the women's representation quota go up from 25% to 35%. And also in the peace process, they they advocated for ensuring that the the women who experience sexual violence, that they would get justice. So there's a component in the peace process, chapter five, that is focused on transitional justice and reconciliation, but it also focuses on getting justice for for the women who went through sexual violence during that period, which was very, very important. So yeah, I was looking at my research paper, it's not published yet, but we're working on getting it published. It looks at how the coalition was able to influence the actors within the process, what are some of you know, the tactics that they use? But also how they were able to sustain that influence over a long period of time.

Okay, and so what what is once the research papers is done, you said it's not been published yet, but what is done with the research paper, what is the what what would you like to be the outcome so now it's been written ,it's waiting for publication. I know that obviously with most researchers publication is the point. So that your other people have access to it - is that the main aim?

I mean, yeah, it's important for people to have access to it, but I think there's so many lessons that could be learned from from the some of the things that they did. Um, the women's movement in South Sudan is still growing. So yeah, I think documentation is important because it's a reference point, right? It's a reference point that we can look at and say, Okay, what was done here? How did it work? What can we learn? How can we improve? It can be used by also, for example, a lot of young women coming into this peacebuilding space, right, there's so many lessons that we can get, and we can learn from here. So yeah, I guess that would be the point. For me, I think also, it would be interesting to because this is like the South Sudanese context, it would be interesting to kind of have this paper interact with other papers of you know, other women coalition's or other women groups, in other contexts in Africa. It would be interesting to kind of look at what are the similarities? Or what are the differences, but like, how can we build to make women's presence or women's influence in peace processes - how can we make it more impactful?

Mm hmm. And, so as your, when your time at ALC came to an end, it was two, was it one year? You said it was one year?


What would you say is at the end of your ALC Fellowship, you know, what did you learn? What were your takeaways from from that period with ALC? You know, going to Nairobi, because it also took you away from Juba, took you to Nairobi, took you to London, what was that like?

Ooh, that was, I mean, it was great. It was a very rich experience. That's yeah, it was a very rich experience. I got to meet and interact with a lot of great minds. And it was great to be with other fellows from, you know, different parts of Africa and interact and exchange ideas and learn from each other's contexts. One of the biggest takeaways, I guess, from the ALC Fellowship is, is about looking at the process of leadership. So, for example, in my paper, even when I was talking about South Sudanese women participation in peace processes, it was very important to define what you know, peace processes were, because I think, you know, when you immediately think about that, you're looking at oh, when they went to Addis, and it was this very high level thing. And, you know, the negotiation that went on there, which is a part of it, and is very important, right. But then it's very ... in order for the women to have the kind of influence that they did, it was a very multi-layered process. It was not just, we are, some of us are going to Addis and this is what we're going to do. It was we're going, we were connected to the women constituency in South Sudan. What are the women in the communities talking about?

What do they want? What do they need?

And then I'm having conversations also with young women with the diaspora. So kind of connecting all these things to the larger process. So I think one of the things that I've taken away from the ALC is to not just look at, even when you're looking at a process to be able to look at it in a very holistic, comprehensive way. Where you're, you're not just isolating just, you know, this one piece of it, there are many pieces of it that are working together. And at every stage, there's something to learn. And yeah, it gives you a different perspective, even when I was writing the op-ed on South Sudanese youth agency. A lot is said about South Sudanese youth. And, you know, a lot of it is related to violence. But there were very, very many groups who were out here trying to spread ... to raise awareness on COVID-19. A lot of them put together care packages for people. A lot of them were very innovative in, you know, creating these wash stations. And that's not being highlighted, but it's happening. I think that's what it taught me to look at all these other processes. And then bring attention to that, because all of that is also part of peace.

Yeah. And peacebuilding. That is really interesting. And I learned that in those kinds of small actions build into a bigger picture, as you said, you know, it really does. So what is your role at the Women's International Peace Centre?

I work at the Women's International Peace Centre as a programme officer. And so what I do is I support the implementation of activities that are around women peace and security. So okay, this the centre does a few things. We do capacity building, we built the technical capacity of you know, women in peacebuilding women, mediators as well, and also of young women to participate in political and peace processes. We also do knowledge production. So we do research. We currently we carried out research on the impact of Covid-19 on women peace and security in South Sudan. That is going to be launched on the 17th of November.
We also launched we did research on 20 years of implementing UNHCR 1325 in South Sudan as well. That was launched earlier this year.
Yeah, so we have this component of where we do research we do documentation of of women's work in peacebuilding. But we also we do capacity building, and we try and amplify the advocacy work and efforts of of women peacebuilders in the community,

How do you decide which projects to initiate or to follow through with on the Women's International Peace Centre?

Okay, so as an organisation we have we have a strategic plan. So that is used to inform what kind of projects we're going to do. So basically, right now, we're focused on two main things, I would guess, I would say, sorry. So we are trying to ensure the increased representation and influence of women in power spaces and institutions. So, in South Sudan, for example, right now, there are several processes going on in terms of implementation of the peace process. We have started the ... this agreement in chapter six, were supposed to start permanent constitution making process which, yeah, so some of the steps have began towards that. So we're trying to ensure that women can participate, whether in the constitutional making bodies, or just have kind of like a technical body that supports the women who are in, in those bodies, but also in you know, conducting advocacy, or doing public consultations with, you know, the general public. And, yeah, so that's what the organisation focuses on. And then there's also supposed to be a transitional justice process, which has not fully begun yet, but, you know, some of the things have started moving. So pay attention to these processes that are happening both at national and state level, and then ensure that women are able to participate in these processes and have influence in these processes as well.

When you say that you ensure that women are involved in those processes, how do you do that?

As an institution, we we do have, I guess, relationships and connections with with other institutions or with you know, some of the ministries. So, in the background, will usually do based on the processes that are happening, do like a mapping of stakeholders, who is well, how can we reach out to them, and then now ensure that the women we have either trained or some of the women organisations that we are affiliated with, can come together and discuss and then now see who is best positioned to be sent, you know, where, but also, yeah, who is who is best suited to be sent well, but to ensure just that, after we've done the mapping, we know who the stakeholders are, and then we figure out, you know, what is the best way to reach out to them, and who is the best to reach out to them.

Your organization's main focus is women in peacebuilding, but I'm nonetheless going to ask you what your thoughts are on the importance of women playing a role in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

Women, as members of the society have, they have a stake in in ensuring peace and in ensuring conflict resolution. A lot of conflict impacts, you know, women, young women and girls in a very different way than it affects men. So, it's important that they're there, because when conflict happens, and it affects them in this way that a man does not necessarily understand, then they can provide solutions that also ensure that, you know, their needs and their concerns are taken care of. So for women to be involved is very important because you can't leave them out of decisions that affect them, you can't leave them out of decisions that are used to dictate how you know the society is going to be, or how their lives are going to be, they have to be able to participate in in order for them to ensure that that the systems and the structures that are in place are are going to be are going to contribute to their well being right are going to contribute to their flourishing aren't, you know, that the Yeah, that the atmosphere and the environment is, is in a way that that they can flourish, and that they can live? Well. So women have to be involved because because they have a stake, they're members of the society, and they have a stake in the society, and they have to participate in order to ensure that the kind of society that they live in is, is beneficial to them, and allows them you know, to live out there practically live out their potential.

And I agree with that myself, being a woman and knowing that we participate in society, but there's a lot of instances women are just not part of decision making. And peacebuilding is one of those. What happens when women are not involved in peacebuilding processes? So that we can highlight some of the negativity that happens around excluding women and for that matter, youth - what would you say are the other negative consequences of women not being involved in peacebuilding?

I think when women are not involved in peacebuilding, okay, so first of all, when we're getting to peacebuilding processes, it's because there was conflict or violence of some sort, right, and then you bring the warring factions together. And then what happens in those rooms when women are not there is that it becomes about power sharing and resources. And it's, you know, it's about you take this position, okay, you will control these resources, you take this piece of land you Yes, so it becomes about that, right. And then we lose the opportunity to, to do peacebuilding in a way that for, for example, takes into consideration. Other social aspects, like maybe, you know, education, I just spoke about justice as well, for, you know, women who've endured sexual violence. Again, if youth are not in the room, then you're missing the fact that youth largely lose out or do not have access to a lot of economic opportunities, or, you know, when they try when they tried to engage, or have their own innovative ideas. And they try to create opportunities for themselves they're frustrated by, you know, in South Sudan, for example, we have the City Council who's always just bringing find they're just find for no reason, and there's no explanation, there's no accountability, you don't know where the money is going. It's just, you know, so even when, when the government is not providing opportunities, and you are creating opportunities for yourself, then you're being frustrated by you know, these people or these systems. When when peacebuilding does not involve or include women and youth, that's what happens, you miss out on all those other aspects that need to be included, because peace is not just oh, we're not you know, it's not just a ceasefire. Although that is an important part of it.

So how were women and girls affected by that process in South Sudan going from conflict to a place where ... Well, to a place where there's the assumption that things are sorted out and there's stability. And then moving from the conflict and needing transitional justice? 

During the South Sudan conflict, women were affected, because, you know, there was a lot, there was a lot of sexual violence. People's houses were burnt down. So a lot of women and children were displaced. It also just, of course, it just disrupts livelihood, you cannot be going, whether you had a farm or a shop, or whatever you were doing, all those livelihood opportunities were completely put to a stop. A lot of you know, because I guess, in during conflict, a lot, a lot of men will be killed or engaged in actual physical fighting. So women, but then a lot of women were left without their husbands without their sons. There was a lot of early and forced marriages, which is still happening till now. I don't know if you have, you have seen, but now with with social media, and with technology, what happens is they literally post a picture of the girl on Facebook, and then people will bid like actual bidding. Yes. And then, you know, whoever is the highest bidder, the girl is, is, I guess, sold off to the man. There's been a lot of when this happens now, you know, young girls are now committing suicide, or, you know, running away and we can't find them. It's heartbreaking. And it's, it's young girls, they're 12, 13. Children. That's that's how women were impacted by the war. But they're still impacted now. I think there's relative stability in the city, in the capital city Juba. But there's still pockets of violence that is still happening around South Sudan. And like I said, the issue of sexual violence, it continues. And young girls being forced into marriage that has largely continued. And it's something that really needs to be addressed.

I'm so sorry. And I am cognizant of the fact that this conversation is, could be, - not could be - is triggering for you, because you've already done the research papers, and now you having to repeat that, and it will bring up feelings, and I'm really trying to understand that. If you feel like there's something that you don't want to talk about, please tell me. And I will respect that.

So the transitional justice process - what are the expectations that are coming from having a process like that? Is it the same as South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Gambia is busy with their TTRC (Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission) at the moment. Would it be a similar process?

I think they're supposed to set up a commission for truth, reconciliation and healing. I think it's the same process where people are going to have to come and talk about the things that happened. There's also supposed to be a hybrid court that is going to be set up. So it's going to be a hybrid court because it's the African Union and the South Sudanese judicial system. They're supposed to set up a hybrid court to try some of the perpetrators of sexual violence. And then there's also a component of reparations.

That's when I can speak about the South African experience. Of course, I lived through it. We did not have a legal process, a reparations process, we didn't have a process where people were actually prosecuted for what happened. And I think it's a really important part, after all of these years, people are like 'apartheid was such a long time ago', but I think part of the reason that we don't feel like there has been justice is because there was none. As far as the legal process is concerned, there are still people walking around, who were poisoning black people, who were creating medical, you know, what are they call them? Biological weapons to test on people in South Africa. So that person is still a doctor in Cape Town.

Isn't that crazy? It can be so infuriating when when the people like the some of the people who've done some of these things, you know, who they are, right? And then they still ... not only like, are practising in whatever profession they are, but like their like leadership positions, like what are we doing?

I know, I know. It's like they benefiting from the fact that they did these heinous acts, they actually benefiting from them. So what was to their advantage, which is more than frustrating, and I can imagine it's the same in South Sudan as well.

Amnesty International wrote a report on transitional justice in South Sudan. And the report is the title of the report and this is a quote from someone they interviewed Of course, they didn't say who it was, but the person said: Will We Prosecute Ourselves?

That's the definition of shade I don't even know if that's shade it's so direct. That is I mean, look, South Africa's government, there are people in the government that have done things that have they're probably never going to come out and that's the thing. How do you how do you peace-build in a situation like that? It must be so hard. You're speaking about peace yet, there are people that are running through these scenarios in the head, they lived these experiences and peacebuilding researchers are, you know, trying to work to a point where people are ... not necessarily embrace what happened, but move on from it. There are certain steps that you need to go through and so if you don't fulfil all of those, I think of the Gambia situation right now. It's all already being said that it's not enough. And when you have been attacked in that way, when you have been discriminated against, when you have been beaten - it's traumatising. Firstly, but moving on from it is not something that you even consider when the people ... that caused it ... how do you how do you move towards peace when they haven't acknowledged their role in the violence?

I mean, that makes a peacebuilder's work really difficult.

Yes. Yes, it does. There's a coalition group that tried to call people to action to protest. And no one really, they didn't get that much support. And the reason why is, there is so much trauma in this country. And when they had announced, the government just started, there were like, big tanks and like, yeah, they showed, they were showing that they are in charge. There was like big tanks, just like, around the neighbourhoods, just driving just in there was such a heavy security presence on the road, like, people were scared. And there's like, there's so much trauma, the conflict just ended in 2018. No one wants to go through any of that again, at all. But you're right. When there is completely no acknowledgement of what has happened, the impact that is it's had, um, it's difficult, even the way the way we talk about peace processes the way we do peace processes, it just, to me, it's a bit flawed, right? If it's the people who who have used violence are the ones that are being brought to discuss how they're going to now, you know, come in, build or rebuild peace. It's a bit ... yeah.

It's a flawed process, if it doesn't take into account the trauma that happened and the post traumatic stress that of all of the people in South Sudan must be feeling because South Africa's conflict was ages ago, at least people say it was ages ago, notwithstanding the fact that we are still in that process of trying to build peace. It's an ongoing process. But for me, when I see a tank, like the ones that were chasing the schoolchildren when I was at school, that were firing at the school children, if I see a tank like that, now, I still, my stomach sinks to the bottom. My reaction is one of panic. There's a good for 30 years between who I was then and who I am now, and it's still present for me. I was chased and beaten once. There are people that spent time in jail, that were tortured. And their families were killed. And as you said, they were raped by police. They were raped by officers.

The trauma that that leaves behind is something that peacebuilding, I don't want to say doesn't quite cover it, because it does try to and especially with organisations like yours, where the focus is the consequences for women. Not consequences, there were these outcomes ... what women experienced during the conflict. And that does need to be dealt with, and the training that you are doing the projects that you do actually try to deal with that. But because we are women, we are we kind of, we tend to ... it's a stereotype ... but emotions are something that we that we know, we understand, and we know that it's going to stay in your body, in your psyche for a while, but what about the men? They were the perpetrators, some of them were victims, survivors of violence as well. So, you know, survivors of sexual violence. But no one is trying to bring those men - like you said they come to the meetings. The perpetrators come to the meetings, speaking about peacebuilding when they haven't acknowledged their own part in in the conflict. What is the missing step in the peace building?

When you just spoke about the men and what happens to them as well, I've been in a training with community- based peace mediators, and I guess, we'll just be having conversations and telling stories. This is not based on their work. This is 'I had an uncle who was, you know, a soldier, and then something happens, and you don't know that they're gone'. This was the story, the women are in the refugee camps. Again, this is something that's not talked about, but they're the ones who will do small, small business, and then you'll get a message that, you know, your husband doesn't have this. So you do small-small business, you send money for him, or you send him clothes. Again, I feel like this doesn't, why does this get talked about, and then he comes back. And, you know, sometimes because of the experience during the war, they come back disabled, but they come back. And the roles have changed. The woman now is empowered getting money, he becomes ... he's violent, he's drunk all the time. He is frustrated. Of course, it's not just as, as simple as he's just a drunkard, and he hits his wife, you know, it's layered, you know, he went, he experienced something that is completely wild, he's come back to a completely different reality as well. Things have changed in his household, he might not, let's say, society is telling him you are the head of the household, you are the leader, he might not even know how to how to do that anymore in this new, different reality. There's no support necessarily for him to talk about what has happened. The only thing he's known is just using his gun to get what he wants. So he doesn't know how to do anything else. This is all he knows how to do. Um, yeah, it's a lot. And this needs to be addressed. There are a few organisations because we part of, of what we do as an organisation, we also focus on healing and wellness. Um, but you know, more organisations I think now are looking at trauma, healing. And just trying to fit that into the whole peacebuilding conversation that we have to do trauma healing, we have to provide support for these people, like the conflict has left so much behind. It, just, again, the guns stopped. And then like, you can't just expect us to just now, go back - so much damage has happened. So a lot of things have to be done to address that.

And then, of course, we also within the space of a year, you say they were still fighting and they still is fighting going on in some pockets, but 2018 is when the official end of the war, and then a year later, the pandemic happened. So now for women, basically, it's dealing with men that have come back and dealing with sons that have come back and then some, some girls that have come back, because they were they ended up with the military somehow. They've come back home, and now you have to deal with with that trauma. With trying to live a normal life, but a normal life is up ended by Covid and, and then peacebuilding has to be pulled in so many different directions, because you have to deal with it. But it still all comes down to the women and how they handle it. Because yes, men are seen as the head of the household. But in in their absence that has changed, like you said, so that is where Women's International Peace Centre's ... the Covid and women's project and how it's affected peacebuilding, in South Sudan comes in. And and I just want to speak a little bit about the centre's Covid-19.

I think I can share a bit. So you know, that the Covid-19 had an impact on on South Sudan, in general in peace, on peace and security, it was, you know, mostly in terms of how it slowed down the process of of implementation. So, because Covid has come now, they had to refocus, you know, to Covid response, but even refocusing to Covid response was, you know, a lot of violence still came with that, in terms of in terms of, you know, the military being used to enforce Covid restrictions. Yeah. And then also because the, the borders were shut down. A lot of food coming in to Juba comes from outside. So comes from Uganda comes from Kenya. So there was a period of time where, you know, there was like, sparsity of food. And that's now when you think about that, and related to the military enforcing, you know, Covid-19 restrictions, you know, they also had limited access to food. So it was, yeah, it was not a great situation in terms of that there was an increase in crime.

Was the increase in crime related to the fact that there was scarcity? 

Yeah, it was it was crime about food. Someone would actually come and break into your house, eat your food or steal your food, which is heartbreaking.

It is. Wow.

There was that there was, again, an increase in early and forced marriages because of poverty when you don't have and then someone comes and presents money to you or gifts. Also an increase in in sexual violence, because people were trapped in that house with their abuser.

What would you say the South Sudan situation is now in terms of the violence, in terms of Covid-19? What's it like there right now, what is it like living in Juba? Because Juba is also like a little bit of an exception, because it's a big city.

Well, in Juba right now that hasn't been the violence that's happening is at the state level. So it's not happening in the capital city. In terms of Covid. Now, in terms of Covid? I don't know. This is ... I don't have the facts about this. Because I don't know if ... we haven't reported as high numbers as I guess other people. I would say that. So I don't know if that's because people are not being tested. Therefore we actually do not have any accurate information about that. Or we just have not to just add that many cases. I'm not sure. But yeah, people are going to the office and they're working from the office, we try to, you know, still use hand sanitizers and use our masks. Yeah, that's what I can say in terms of in terms of Covid. But some vaccinations have come in and people have started getting vaccinated. I think there was a information passed on by the National Task Force on Covid-19 just to encourage people to to go and get vaccinated.

And Covid-19 has slowed down the peace process as well. At what stage is that now?

A lot has been done in terms of forming the transitional government. The main thing that has been lacking and is critical to this peace process is chapter two, which is the unification of the armed forces. So they were they were supposed to be trained and they were supposed to go through professionalisation, I guess, and then there was supposed to be, you know, united into one unified force and graduated. So that is lagging, that is lagging behind a lot. It has been reported, you know, that in in some of the containment sites that they were supposed to be, there was no, there was no food, there was no medicine, there was no, there was a lot of things that were lacking, and therefore, they just left, the soldiers just left. Yeah, so a lot of the containment were abandoned. So I'm not sure what is being done right now to ensure that this process continues and gets done. But it is the main component that's lagging behind, and it's a critical one.

Is there anything else that's coming up that the WIPC wants to highlight?

We're also planning to have an annual peace convening. So we're going to bring together stakeholders from, you know, from the government from civil society. To just come and I think for this one, we're going to focus on women's participation in the permanent constitution making process. Um, yeah. So that's coming up. And I think it's going it's coming up around the same time, we're going to have the launch of the impact of Covid-19. And then right now, we're also working with community-based peace mediators so that we're not just focused in Juba, we're in Bor, we're in Mundri and we're in Yei as well, so we're kind of just focusing on the rising issues within those specific contexts and trying to ensure that the peace mediators that are there are able to engage in conflict resolution in their specific contexts.

Margaret, thank you so much. Is there anything else you'd like to say anything you want to end off with?

In one of your questions you had said you had it was about women and youth participation in decision making. I just wanted to highlight just because I work with young women, and you know, I'm a young woman that, you know, sometimes we it's more difficult for us because we do face, you know, double discrimination of, you know, of gender and being young. But there we are participating young women are in this space, and we tried to do, you know, our best to participate. And I just hope that as I continue to be in this space, that I encourage just more young people in general, to, to, to add their voice, I think, you know, sometimes this space can be intimidating. When you think about peace process or peacebuilding, sometimes you're like, no, that's for other people. But no, the decisions that are made in these spaces affect you directly, and you do have a stake, right. And if you can contribute towards making your own life better, the lives the lives of people around you, then I encourage young people to be active, and to be active in their own way. You know, if you're artistic use your art, if you're a singer, sing, but we all have something that we can contribute and bring to this space. So I encourage young people to get involved.

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