From displacement to resilience: formerly displaced women in South Sudan voice long-term concerns to Panel
2 June 2021
Protracted displacement has far-reaching consequences beyond short-term humanitarian needs. This was underlined by former South Sudanese internally displaced persons (IDPs) in a semi-virtual consultation with the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement on June 2 as they recounted their experience of displacement, stories of resilience and longing for peace. Co-organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Panel’s Secretariat, the meeting, arranged in Rumbek, South Sudan, was part of the Panel’s near ending consultative process as it fine-tunes recommendations for its report due to be submitted to the UN Secretary-General at the end of September this year.
In the ICRC’s sub-delegation in Rumbek, Panel member Pauline Riak, a South Sudanese herself, sat down with three formerly displaced women and two representatives from the ICRC, including an interpreter. Facing them was a computer screen split into quadrants for virtual attendees including Panel members Paula Gaviria Betancur and Sima Samar, the Panel’s Expert Advisory Group member Walter Kaelin, Secretariat team members and representatives of ICRC’s headquarter based in Geneva.
The Head of the ICRC Sub-Delegation, Thomas Forster, introduced Monica, Elena D. and Elena A. as community members who have been displaced due to cycles of inter-communal violence in Lakes State which is served by Rumbek as its capital. As tension eased in the area, some families, including the group of women and their children, have returned to their original homes in hopes of rebuilding their lives. On the ground, ICRC has been providing emergency assistance and long-term livelihoods support to individuals in need, explained Mr. Forster.
“During times of conflict, we think immediately of humanitarian aid but this is a situation of protracted displacement,” said Ms. Riak as she opened the meeting. “Here, we are working on long-term healing and supporting people to prepare in case of future displacement,” she stated.
For Ms. Riak, the consultation was not the first with the three women or other displaced or formerly displaced communities. In preparing for the consultation, she had visited the projects conducted on-site by the ICRC and met with the residing communities at the end of May.
Monica, Elena D. and Elena A. shared their growing daily challenges since their return to Rumbek. They spoke fondly of the assistance they received from humanitarian organizations that enable capacity growth and long-term sustenance beyond securing limited supplies of food. Using the tools and seeds provided by the ICRC, the three women are now growing and maintaining vegetable gardens with other families.
“We have our kids in school because of this support,” stressed Elena A. “When you look at the things we are cultivating, it is not always the food you want to eat. But we are growing whatever we can, given the available resources,” she elaborated.
“We want the region to continue to be peaceful. Now that there is less tension, we have the opportunity to work for our children,” added Monica.
The turmoil in the region is not isolated from the rest of the country. South Sudan emerged in 2011 as the world’s youngest nation but its path towards development has been marked with surges of violence, forcing many to flee their homes in search of safety. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more than 1.4 million people were living in displacement as a result of conflict and violence at the end of 2020. While pockets of stability open opportunities for IDPs to return to their location of origins, the question of future displacement has never completely subsided.
For many displaced women, the hardships are further compounded by social and gender-specific factors. With men on the battleground, some never returning, many found themselves as now single heads of household bearing the brunt as the sole breadwinner and caretaker. “Our husbands are not present. When the head of the house is not there, you must sacrifice and do what you can,” shared Monica whose husband was killed and their cattle stolen as they were on the move.
“There is a lot of suffering. For the last few years, we have been moving from place to place and this is happening to women all over the country,” added Elena A.
The noise of heavy rainfall suddenly resounded in the background as the meeting neared its end. One Secretariat member took the opportunity to ask a question about rain and other disasters as possible drivers of internal displacement in the country.
“This year, it is different. Actually, there hasn’t been enough rain and women groups have expressed concerns over the crop yields,” explained Ms. Riak. At the same time, she noted that heavy rainfall also brings forward its own sets of complications including the threat of damaging flooding to homes commonly made out of mud. Ms. Riak added that the group of women do not presently possess the carpentry skills needed to construct houses, a responsibility once entrusted to their late husbands. Amid these challenging circumstances, she commended the women for their resilience and determination in forging a new path forward.
As Elena D. informed the Panel: “We have committed ourselves to work for our children. The only request we have is for our capacity to be increased.”
The outcomes of the conversation will build upon the Panel’s previous consultations with impacted communities. Since its inception, the Panel has, with the support of UN agencies and NGOs, heard the voices of more than 12,500 IDPs and host community members across 22 countries. To learn more about the Panel’s consultations with IDPs and host communities, click here.