19-year-old newlywed Nyanakim Anguie Thon cradles her one-year old son as she sits in a room full of young women in Malakal. They are here to discuss everything related to peace and social cohesion.
It’s the first time Nyanakim is attending a workshop like this one. Amongst her peers of comparable age, it turns out that she is not the only one who has been missing out on such learning opportunities.
“I told my husband about the workshop and informed him that I would be bringing our baby, plus another child I babysit, along,” she says. “My work is taking care of the home and the children, fetching water, doing chores – not going for workshops.”
The comments, claps and pearly laughs are as youthful as the participants. As they talk about what peace means to them, eager hands don’t hesitate to shoot up in the air to give their owners a chance to speak up.
Moments later, there is a sharp decibel contrast. That is when civil affairs officer Catherine Amboga-Rimmele, who facilitates the discussion, asks them whether they have heard about the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or whether they know anything about the revitalized peace agreement. One could hear a pin drop.
Unlike youngsters attending school and their older sisters, this group of women know little about the mandate of the peacekeeping mission operating in their country. Even more startling is their shared feeling that peacebuilding is not their responsibility.
It seems like Catherine and her UNMISS civil affairs colleagues are on to an important new audience.
“We are wary about the growing numbers of disenfranchised young women who feel they have nothing to contribute towards peace in South Sudan,” says Catherine. “That’s why we decided to allow the women here today to attend the workshop with their children, and even made special arrangements for childcare and feeding.”
As the introductions are in motion, she notes two older women who have come “to represent their daughters, who have work to do at home.” On this day, however, they are politely asked to leave.
“We noticed a trend where every workshop was attended by the older women, so we decided to specifically target women under the age of 30 who are not going to school,” says Catherine and explains the second, “no-school”, criterium: “Girls at school also get significant amounts of attention. But not these women.”
The world’s youngest nation is a largely patriarchal society. The revitalized peace agreement hopes to change that by stipulating that at least 35 per cent of leadership positions are to be held by women.
Much work remains to make sure that women in general and the younger ones in particular are effectively engaged and empowered.
In Malakal, at least, some of them are off to a good start.