Mary Nyakhan Makuei is 38 years old and has seven children. She lives in Juba, the capital of South Sudan—the world's youngest country and one that has been struggling with a brutal civil war since 2013, just two years after it was first established.
But Makuei is not just a wife and a mother. Since April 2014, she has been a member of a women-only nonviolent peacekeeping force, working within her community to promote peace, combat domestic violence, and create a safe environment for women to simply live their lives as normally as possible.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan at the end of 2013, after the Dinka president at the time, Salva Kiir, accused his vice-president, who was from the Nuer ethnic group, of plotting a coup. Ethnic conflict soon spread across the country and despite several peace-deals—the last one of which was signed in August—violence continues to this day. As alliances shift and change, the situation becomes increasingly complex and intractactable.
As the conflict continues, so does abuse of human rights. In October, the African Union published a report in which it accused both rebel and government forces of severe civilian brutalities, including murder, rape, and even cases of forced cannibalization. "The commission found cases of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) committed by both parties against women," the report states. "It also documented extreme cruelty exercised through the mutilation of bodies, burning of bodies, draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others from one ethnic community to drink the blood or eat burnt human flesh."
For women and girls, the bitter civil war has been particularly horrific. A report published by Human Rights Watch in July documented the horrific sexual abuse that many women had suffered. " Almost every person we met had heard of or knew someone that government forces or their allied militias had raped," writes Samer Muscati, a senior researcher in the organisation's Women's Rights Division. "One woman said that rape had become 'just a normal thing'."
But within this violent and terrifying context, there are those making consistent moves for peace. The Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) organisation is dedicated to reducing violence in conflict zones by promoting unarmed civilian protection. It runs programmes in Myanmar and the Philippines, but South Sudan is the first country in which they have established Women Peacekeeping Teams (WPTs).
Makuei is one of 31 women, aged between 30 to 50 years old, who are members of a WPT group. Speaking via an interpreter over Skype, she explains that she became a WPT member in order to solve the issues facing her community.
"Due to high number of new arrivals [in the capital city of Juba] the issues now are related to basic needs, particularly things like accessing water, food, and shelter," she explains. "Because of the lack of these services the internally displaced people (IDPs) are always fighting each other and looting other people's properties. What we're trying to do is involve the IDPs in discussions about how to present their emotions in a positive manner, to avoid these kind of problems."
While the civil war has affected the work that the WPTs do, there are ongoing issues that they must consistently deal with too. According to the National Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, up to 70 percent of women in South Sudan have experienced domestic violence. It is common for girls to marry young; Human Rights Watch say that almost half of South Sudanese girls aged between 15 and 19 are married, and some are as young as 12 on their wedding day.
Makuei says that one of the things she enjoys most about being a WPT member is being able to help with these problems. "The main difficulties facing women in South Sudan are rape, being subjected to domestic violence, and husbands leaving their children with their wives and going to join the rebels. I like being able to help other women with GBV cases and child protection issues."
It's the women who have suffered the most. But at the same time, it's us who are the most resilient and committed to peace.
She points out that because the members of the WPT are from the very community that they're trying to help, they are more readily accepted by people—and are thus able to solve many issues at ground level, without those from outside the region having to get involved.
Other than the increase in displaced people and refugees, the conflict has caused setbacks for certain programmes the WPTs are keen to put into motion. "There have been delays in resuming workshops and training," Makuei says, but she insists that she has high hopes for the future. "We want to keep building our capacity and leaderships so we can have a bigger impact. It's the women who have suffered the most. But at the same time, it's us who are the most resilient and committed to peace."
Tandiwe Ngwenya, is an NP Team Leader who has helped establish WPTs in Bor, the capital city of Jonglei State in South Sudan. Originally from Zimbabwe, she previously lived in Rwanda for three years where she worked for a genocide prevention and peacebuilding organization, working alongside youth, genocide victims, perpetrators and prisoners.
She explains that the process of creating each WPT group is a slow one. "When we first start working within a community we initially do an assessment to get a better understanding of what they need. Then we slowly start integrating with the women, and making them realize the difference they can make within their communities. We ask if we can train them in conflict resolution, if they want to be trained, and only after that do we start the training."
Ngwenya highlights that it's not actually NP who chooses WPT members. "It's an independent figure who makes this decision because in case NP has to leave South Sudan, it's important the groups can be sustained without us there." In terms of what kind of women join the groups, Ngwenya says it varies from place to place—but they are mainly already influential figures within the community who are able to make an impact.
When they must leave their camps to go and get firewood they are at risk of being abused or even killed.
Many of the community issues that the WPTs deal with have emerged due to the thousands of people displaced by the ongoing war. "Alcoholism is a problem," Ngwenya says. "Because people have been confined in camps for two years or more [to escape the fighting] there are increasingly exhibitions of negative behaviour. Many men turn to alcohol, but gradually more women are also beginning to drink every day." The WPTs work to identify those who are most at risk and then mentor them for months at a time in order to help them recover from their addiction.
The groups also work to ensure the safety of women as they go about their everyday lives. "When they must leave their camps to go and get firewood they are at risk of being abused or even killed," Ngwenya says, "so the WPTs help to educate women on staying safe, and only going in bigger groups when they leave the camps." In the settlements themselves, WPT members often position themselves at water points and latrines, where overcrowding leads to long queues and fights can sometimes arise as people become frustrated with the long wait to access basic facilities.
In a country stricken with war and violence, it may seem counterintuitive to focus on what are comparably such minor problems. But by creating a space for women to take leadership and promote peace within their own communities, the WPTs may very well be a step in the right direction for South Sudan.
Ngwenya tells me that despite the bitter conflict between the Dinkas and the Nuers, in some WPTs women from each ethnic group work side by side. "It was hard to tell the women apart, because they treat each other like sisters. The only challenge I observed is language," she says. "The WPTs may only be mitigating conflict in their respected areas, but they can also be used as an important linkage between regions. We have the opportunity to bring the WPTs from different ethnic tribes together so they act as an access point between different communities.
"That's how they contribute to the bigger picture."