According to the World Bank statistics analysis report, 2019, women account for 50% of the total population in South Sudan. It is estimated that only 8% of women in South Sudan are literate, possibly the lowest female literacy rate in the world (Education in South-Sudan report by USAID). Low literacy is an obstacle for women to actively participate in the development agenda of their respective communities. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated gender inequality and exposed women and girls to greater risks of gender-based violence (GBV), which disproportionately affect women. This notwithstanding, the pandemic has affected the sexual and reproductive health and rights of millions of women and girls in high-risk areas such as South Sudan. According to the UNICEF GBV report published in 2019, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) remains the most common form of GBV.
There is a need to promote equal rights and the ability for women in the world’s newest nation. Over the last two years, Amref Health Africa in South-Sudan, through the Health Pooled Fund (HPF), has prioritised capacity building to address women’s and girls’ needs in health, education and leadership through Health Facilities Management Committees (HFMC). The introduction of HFMC has provided a platform for women and girls to acquire the power to exercise their rights and fulfil their potential as equal members of society. It also empowers women and girls to make decisions free of coercion at the individual, family, community, and societal levels.
In the Western Equatorial States, every week, groups of women gather in a circle to discuss issues affecting them and how to solve health and socio-economic challenges in their communities.
Hellen Oliver, 40-year-old deputy chairperson of the committee explains how the project has positively impacted their lives, “access to information on health related services which are available at the health facility has been one of the achievements of the training. The committee has ensured that our concerns and challenges, as well as needs, are heard and addressed effectively”.
According to Hellen, the information on health related services acquired through the training enabled her to approach life with a newfound sense of confidence. However, she acknowledges that there is a need to improve the quality of living standard of the deprived, vulnerable and marginalised communities, especially single mothers through interventions in education, health, community physical infrastructure, skill development and capacity building.
For other women, the forums give them opportunities to learn new things and make wise choices for themselves and their children. 27-year-old Joyce Clement, a housewife and a member of the committee noted that as a result of the training, she now knows the importance of supporting both girls and boys to attend school. “I am confident to participate or engage in societal affairs and systems of power that influence and determine development, life activities, and outcomes,” says Joyce.
Loice Hellen, places great importance on the positive impact of the Health Facilities Management Committees. A mother of three, a housewife and a proud member of the group says the committee has empowered her with knowledge in leadership skills. “I am now able to practice leadership skills in my family and community by taking part in important projects. I now know my voice is important at any level of decision making in society,” she reaffirms.
Hellen insists that she is now empowered and aware that women can hold key positions in society. Loice admits that the knowledge she gained from the forums has enabled her to also create awareness and convince Persons with Disability (PWDs) to seek health services at the medical facility.
The forums provide women and girls with friendly safe spaces where they share experiences on GBV, early marriage, family planning, entrepreneurship opportunities, hygiene during menstrual periods, women’s rights and involvement in community activities.
The project also involves men as champions to promote inclusivity in transformational shifts in gendered social norms and practices. This approach empowers men and boys as allies and agents of change through the promotion of alternative and positive masculinities, shared decision making, equitable division of labour in caregiving or unpaid tasks, healthy and gender-equitable relationships, non-violence and elimination of retrogressive practices such as child marriage.
Story by Maureen Cherongis, Communication Officer, Media and External Relations, Amref Health Africa