The Countess of Wessex has made the first Royal visit to South Sudan during International Women’s Week. Her visit marks a year since she announced her commitment to supporting the UK’s efforts in the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, which she pledged on International Women’s Day in March 2019.
This week, The Countess met survivors of gender-based violence in Malakal, an area badly affected by the conflict and ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.
The Countess spoke with a group of survivors about the impact of the conflict and about the ongoing challenges faced by displaced women and girls, including further insecurity, sexual violence and domestic violence. In a speech at an event later in the week, The Countess said:
I cannot imagine the hardship and trauma they are suffering and yet they remain positive and are trying to make the best of the very few opportunities they have for their families and their children, no matter how hopeless the situation must seem to them.
The Countess also met men who are engaged in a programme to bring greater gender equality into their homes and communities by supporting each other and talking about challenging the societal issues. They discussed how to tackle harmful gender norms and issues effecting women and girls in South Sudan. The Countess encouraged these men to continue to be agents of change in their communities.
While in Malakal, Her Royal Highness also visited soldiers and officers from the Malakal Engineering Group who have been delivering outreach projects that enhance human security in the country. The UK serving personnel support the UN Mission to South Sudan by building hospitals, operating bases and making security improvements to protect civilian areas, helping thousands of people across South Sudan. In response to sexual violence against civilians, efforts have also included the upgrade of 16km of road near a remote village where women and children were required to walk long distances to collect food. The improvements allowed the World Food Programme better access to the village, reducing the distance vulnerable women must walk to collect food and reducing their exposure to threats of violence.
In Juba, The Countess spent time with women political leaders and peacebuilders and discussed the importance of women playing a full role in building a peaceful and stable future for all of South Sudan. Her Royal Highness met Church leaders in Juba to hear about their work to promote peace in South Sudan and to reconcile communities, this included representatives from a Women’s Link programme which works on women’s inclusion particularly in local peacebuilding efforts.
The Countess visited a secondary school during the trip to learn about the UK supported Girls’ Education promotes gender equality and empowering girls through education.
On the last day of her visit, The Countess attended an event to celebrate International Women’s Day, in collaboration with “Born to Lead”, a group of local civil society activists supported by Oxfam whose mission is to help South Sudanese women recognise and realise their leadership potential. The Countess viewed the market-place style stalls show-casing the work of talented women artists and activists, and photographs of inspiring South Sudanese women, and Her Royal Highness met local artists, musicians, singers and poets, who had come together to celebrate the role of women. The Countess said: “The women and girls that I have met this week fill me with confidence that South Sudan has the right women to work alongside their male counterparts to bring about a lasting peace for everyone and a more equal country. So my message to the men is to encourage you all to listen to your women folk and to support them to take their place at your side. This is not a take-over, this is not a competition, this is about peace, it is about unity, it is about what is fair and right for the benefit of all. At the end of the day we are better together.[…] Your country needs many more women to step up and help to shape and steer it towards the bright future which is within the nation’s grasp. And who knows, perhaps amongst us here today exists the first female President of South Sudan.”
Going forwards, The Countess will continue to meet, listen to and learn from survivors of sexual violence in conflict and women peacebuilders, to draw attention to the issues; to champion women’s voices as meaningful participants in peace processes and to encourage support to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Women Oh Yei! Mara Oh Yei! (“Three cheers for women!”)