By Moses Sakondo ---October 20th 2021
“OPM and UNHCR among other partners have enhanced our governance skills, problem solving skills and expertise. As you may be aware, the vast majority of South Sudanese refugee women were previously not erudite about governance issues, but we are now well-versed in local government policies and laws,” Nelly William, the Secretary for Women Affairs in Cluster 1, Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, Zone 1, explains that, while cultural determinism isstrong, the Office of the Prime Minister and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have drastically changed the norm. The government of Uganda in partnership with UNHCR and Refugee Law Project, according to her has conducted numerous capacity building and leadership mentorship initiatives to empower, elevate, and enhance the aptitude of women leaders in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. “We have received more leadership mentorship and economic empowerment, and if additional support is provided to female leaders, it should be distributed fairly. I believe that something significant and noble should be done to recognize female leaders at all levels of the Refugee Welfare Councils (RWCs) for their outstanding service to the community,” Ms.Nelly emphasized. Nelly William, on the other hand, highlighted that, unlike in the initial days of their participation in decision-making processes, when women leaders' voices were not taken into account, this has significantly changed, with women now given priority at Refugee Welfare Council (RWC) structures. However, she strongly stated that women's voices are not taken seriously by implementing partners at the highest levels of decision-making (coordination, zonal, and sectorial meetings). “The voices of refugee women leaders are sometimes silenced at coordination, zonal, and sectorial meetings, and women leaders are sometimes left behind when critical decisions are made by implementing partners. For those reasons, we need to attend coordination, sector and zonal meetings as women leaders for peaceful coexistence and meaningful participation in decision making,” Nelly appealed to partners. In her message of peace to South Sudan leaders, Nelly William stated that, "As South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, we believe our voices should be heard and the truth must be told. We must return to our homeland. I know IGAD has done its best, but this regional body should find a long-term solution to the conflict in South Sudan. They must also identify who started the conflict, and the perpetrators must face justice in a public hearing.” Additionally, Jesca Poni, Zone 1 overall Secretary for Women Affairs, on the other hand stated that the leadership trainings provided by OPM haveimproved her ability to make constructive decisions at both family and community levels without the assistance of her husband or male colleagues. “I am able to speak up and advocate for women's rights whenever there is any pressing issue in society, such as domestic violence, child labor, or child marriages." In agreement with Nelly, Poni added that women are not always given the opportunity to lead the Refugee Welfare Councils as chairpersons; instead, women are appointed to positions as deputy chairpersons, with some being appointed by a group of individuals, which she described as a stumbling block averting them from meaningfully participating in decision making. "I am of the view that in the upcoming elections in 2022, the OPM should allow the community to elect the Secretaries for Women Affairs RWC 2 at the village level." Their elections should be similar to the RWC 3 elections. I request that the executive elections for the secretaries for women affairs at the lower levels be banned in order to encourage competition among women and reduce tribalism," she appealed. Poni also stated that some of their husbands are impeding their ability to lead effectively, particularly when they are required to fulfill a societal role and the husband insists on "you prepare the food first." When asked about the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), Jesca Poni, like the vast majority of refugee leaders I spoke with throughout the month of October, strongly denied seeing or reading the peace agreement, saying, "I have not seen it and have not read it. Of course, I have heard rumors about it from other people. I don't have a radio or a television set at home.” She, however, added that the OPM and UNHCR are the only sources of accurate information for her, but she hasn't heard anything about the agreement andshe does not want to rely on rumors among her South Sudanese folks, but believes that refugees have a right to access accurate information. Mr. Legge Michael Anyanzo, Chairperson RWC 3, expressed similar concerns from a male standpoint, stating that despite the various efforts and leadership trainings provided by different organizations to empower and increase capacity for women leaders, women themselves feel weak and inferior. “Some men still have a superiority complex, believing that a woman cannot lead them and other men believe that women are only there to cook, clean, and do other household chores. Gender, in my opinion, is simply a constructively social responsibility assigned by society to both men and women,” Legge stated. Legge went ahead to appeal to his fellow men to change their attitude towards women in order to ensure that women's rights are respected and that women have meaningful participation in decision making, which improves peace and security at home, in society and the settlement, adding that low self-esteem should not be an issue, but rather women should be encouraged to develop high self-esteem. About the slow implementation of the South Sudan peace agreement, Legge argued that the unity government should establish permanent peace so that the overwhelming number of refugee women and children sheltered in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement can be repatriated. "Right now, if the government of Uganda, represented by the OPM, is unable to provide travel documents for refugees to return to South Sudan, it means they are aware of the level of security and peace in South Sudan." I am not in favor of self-repatriation. "Let us wait for peace so that the UNHCR and OPM can officially repatriate refugees," he said, warning refugees against self-repatriation. Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, the world's second largest refugee camp, was established in 2016 to accommodate the influx of South Sudanese refugees fleeing Western, Central, and Eastern Equatoria States. It was a vast, empty, and arid expanse of land near Yumbe, a small northern Ugandaborder town. Today, however, it is home to approximately 239,059 refugees, the majority of whom have fled from the violence and upheaval in South Sudan.The settlement is divided into five administrative units known as zones, the first of which includes fourteen villages and three clusters. About I CAN South Sudan I CAN South Sudan (ICSS) is a Refugee-Led Organisation based in Yumbe District, Uganda, in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. The organisation was founded in Uganda in 2017, and it was registered as a National Non-Governmental Organisation in South Sudan in 2019. Its mission is to engage unaccompanied South Sudanese refugee children in Uganda, as well as returnee and internally displaced children in South Sudan, in social and musical activities to heal the trauma of war and spread a message of peace. I CAN South Sudan gives unaccompanied refugee children a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope in their lives, help them develop future skills in art and music, and give them a creative voice to express their desire for peace in South Sudan.The charity organization also provides musical coaching with an emphasis on group work, developing individual confidence, and forging friendship bonds between children from both sides of South Sudan's tribal conflict. About the author Moses Sakondo, is a 25-year-old South Sudanese refugee, journalist, and human rights activist, works with unaccompanied refugee children in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, Yumbe District, Northern Uganda. Sakondo works as the Public Relations Manager at I CAN South Sudan.