A place where simply being a woman demands heroics

March 8, 2020
Photo by Abbie Taylor-Smith

Veteran aid worker Áine Fay — our Country Director in South Sudan — reflects on the challenges facing women and girls in the world’s newest country.

The heaviest burden

80% of people in South Sudan live on less than $1 a day – a statistic that we humanitarian workers use regularly, almost forgetting how close to impossible it really is. A dollar in South Sudan buys you very little. With inflation running at 24% in 2019, a small loaf of bread could cost you close to this $1, and meat and vegetables are almost imaginary foods for the vast majority of people.  How anyone can feed a family, let alone think of access schooling and health care on this amount, is beyond me.

And the burden falls mostly on women.

South Sudan faces instability, violence, and regular climate shocks — challenges that would be daunting for any nation. Yet it’s a country with warm, hospitable, friendly people, the vast majority of whom only want peace and a better future for their children. Empowering women is a key part of that future.

South Sudanese woman and young child

Leylo* (30) with her youngest child six month old, Dit*. Photo: Abbie Taylor-Smith/ Concern Worldwide

Superhumans needed

South Sudan is a difficult context for gathering data, but the most recently available statistics for women are not good. The maternal mortality ratio stands at 789 per 100,000 live births — quite possibly the worst in the world — and the number of births attended by skilled health personnel could be as low as 20%. There are nearly 2 million people displaced from their homes inside South Sudan, the majority being women, girls, and children. The female literacy rate, as last recorded, was just 16%, and at least 4 out of 10 women are reported to have experienced some sort of violence.

Most of these figures are out of date, but it’s unlikely that there has been much, if any, improvement over time.

“This is no place for the faint of heart.”

Nyarok* is 25 years old and lives in a tiny “tukel” with her husband, their three children and her mother-in-law. “The biggest problem we are facing is no money,” she says. “No income means no food.” The couple do casual labor when it’s available, but often there’s no work. Perhaps once a week they have more than a single meal in a day. The few maize plants they manage to cultivate don’t last long. Nyarok says her youngest child, Axlam, almost died from malnutrition.

But time and again I have marveled at the steely determination and almost superhuman abilities that South Sudanese women bring to bear on problem-solving a way past the many barriers thrown in their path. Survival here can depend on razor-thin margins, smart decision making, and pure courage. This is no place for the faint of heart. War, drought, displacement, lack of public services, and hunger are just some of the headline challenges women deal with on a depressingly regular basis.

Widowed mother of five, Ahok Agouk Baak

Widowed mother of five Ahok* at a group vegetable plot, part of a Concern effort to support livelihoods and food production . Photo: Kieran McConville

That’s why Concern is here — and that’s why we focus our work very much on women and children. Food, shelter, water, sanitation, and nutrition assistance are our key areas of operation. Our community-based teams seek out pregnant moms and malnourished kids and accompany them to nutrition and health centers (there are mobile health clinics for those who are too far away.) We provide skilled staff and supplies for remote government clinics that otherwise would be barely functional. We also work with women in the production of fruit and vegetables and provide cooking demonstrations so they get the best nutritional values from their produce.

“I am thankful to our supporters across the world who give us their backing.”

Inequality and gender based violence are a real problem for women and girls here and we are expanding our awareness campaigns and strengthening our advocacy efforts at various levels. Within our own operation too we are pushing for more representation and opportunities for smart and qualified women.

A group of Concern Worldwide workers in South Sudan

Áine Fay (back row, 3rd from right) with female members of the Concern South Sudan team at the office in Juba.

Proud and thankful

For our team of 400 staff (92% of whom are South Sudanese), getting anything done can be a highly frustrating experience, with insecurity, poor infrastructure, lack of supplies, and long travel distances regularly preventing them from achieving the kind of impact they want. Concern’s mission often sees us working in places that are dangerous and very hard to reach— but that’s almost always where the need is greatest. I am proud of this team who have achieved so much against such difficult odds, and I am thankful to our supporters across the world who give us their backing. In 2019 we directly reached nearly 290,000 women and girls in South Sudan.

Monica Mawien a supervisor with the Concern community nutrition team. Photo: Kieran McConville/ Concern Worldwide

*Names have been changed for security reasons.