A dozen women were seated in the courtyard underneath a traditional African roof. They were casually chatting while engrossed in stringing colourful beads. Some were making bracelets decorated with the South Sudanese flag to celebrate two years of the country's independence on July 9. For many, the income from selling their handicrafts here at the Roots Project is the first they have earned in their lives. As the newly independent South Sudan struggles to stand on its feet, the women's effort constitutes a significant step towards their own independence.
The Roots Project, a grassroots organisation based in Juba, was established in 2009 with the aim of supporting the vulnerable South Sudanese, while focusing on women. The founder, Anyieth D'Awol, is South Sudanese by birth, holds an LLM in human rights from Leicester University in the United Kingdom, and has researched and written on human rights issues affecting South Sudanese women.
Ruth Lugor, a South Sudanese who manages the centre in Juba, told Weekend Review about the idea behind the Roots Project: “Our purpose is to empower women through arts and crafts, as well as education.” By creating an opportunity for women to sell tribal crafts, the centre provides a secure environment for them to pursue economic independence.
The project now has approximately 60 women and a handful of men, representing more than a dozen different ethnic groups from all of South Sudan's ten states. The issues affecting the women are manifold: “Many of the women here are widows, single mothers, have suffered abuse, or have been forced into marriage at a very young age. Some are also affected by HIV/Aids,” Lugor explains.
The needs in a country such as South Sudan are enormous. South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, yet decades of conflict have left a legacy of insecurity and extreme poverty. Since the signing of the peace agreement with Sudan in 2005, progress has been made, especially in terms of setting up essential government institutions and developing Juba. But the nascent government still struggles to ensure security and to deliver very basic services to its population of about 10 million. Today, the country continues to rank among the lowest in terms of many development indicators.
Displaced by conflict
Miri, who comes from Akobo in Jonglei state, tells her story: “In my village, there is no money, no food and no education. Even after 2005, our village was often attacked and many people were killed.” Miri came to Juba with her seven children and joined the Roots Project in 2011. Her husband, who is a soldier in the South Sudanese Army, stayed behind.
Throughout the interim period as well as during the first two years of independence, internal instability and fighting with Sudan along the border has continued. Jonglei state has been particularly affected by inter-communal fighting. With limited resources, corruption and poor access to rural areas due to lack of roads, the government struggles to reach out to remote communities with basic services, security and delivery of justice. As such, the population in many rural parts of the country has seen little change in their lives.
Cecilia is a South Sudanese returnee from Khartoum. Upon independence, she came to Juba with her four daughters. “In Khartoum I used to be a housewife. We all lived together, and I didn't need to work,” Cecilia recounts. Her husband, who has a stable job in Khartoum, stayed behind to support the family financially. But the amount Cecilia's husband sends each month is not sufficient. “I still live with my in-laws,” she says. “There isn't enough space in the house, so my belongings have to stay outside. I have bought a plot of land, but I can't save enough to start building a house for my family.”
Following the long-awaited independence from Sudan, many returnees have come to Juba hoping for better opportunities. But finding employment has been difficult, leaving many people jobless and fending for themselves in the streets of the capital. The oil industry comprises more than 60 per cent of South Sudan's economy, but, by nature, doesn't offer many jobs. With the private sector in its very early stages of development, the government remains the largest employer. The halt in oil exports for much of the past two years due to disputes over transit fees with Khartoum eliminated 98 per cent of the government's revenues, forcing additional economic austerity.
For some returnees, linguistic and cultural barriers have also posed difficulties to reintegrate into South Sudanese society. Cecilia's niece, who completed her entire primary and secondary education in Arabic while studying in Khartoum, doesn't speak English well enough to be able to enrol at Juba University.
Providing much-needed income
In the absence of a social safety net and sufficient employment opportunities, the Roots Project fills the void for its beneficiaries by providing basic livelihood. The women at the project receive 100 per cent of the proceeds from the handicraft sales. Together with the centre's management, they agree on the price and receive the full sales value upfront, regardless of whether the item is eventually sold. The centre thus generates a stable cash flow that enables the women to sustain their families.
Miri says she earns around $180 (Dh660) per month through the centre's activities, which has helped her send her children to school. “Life in Juba is expensive,” she says. “School costs 500 South Sudanese pounds [about Dh475] per year per child.” Six out of her seven children are now in school. Rent and school fees consume almost all of Miri's income. Her husband does not supporting the family financially. “Every time I speak to him, he says the army pays no money,” she says.
During the conflict, basic services such as education were provided by international aid agencies and used to be free of charge in many parts of South Sudan. These agencies still provide the bulk of basic services outside of the capital, but with the government taking over some basic service provision in Juba, health and education have become unaffordable to ordinary citizens.
Cecilia has only been with the Roots Project for three months, but already her income has had significant impact on her family's life. Last month, she used all of her earnings to enrol one of her daughters in a secondary school and to purchase her books. Yet many times, Cecilia's income falls short of covering incidental expenses, such as unexpected visits to health clinics. These can be a frequent occurrence during the rainy season, when diseases such as malaria affects children.
Due to the high cost of living in Juba, many of the women cannot afford to even eat thrice a day. “We provide breakfast and lunch at the centre,” Lugor says. “For many of the women and their children, this is the only food intake they will have during the day.”
Empowerment through education
Providing basic education is central to the centre's philosophy of empowering women. Lugor, who holds a masters degree in sociology from a Canadian university, has learnt from her own experience that education is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency. “My mother never went to school, but she still understood the importance of education and ensured her children attended school,” she says. “We encourage the women to have the same impact on their children.”
An estimated 80 per cent of South Sudan's population is illiterate, and girls are at a particular disadvantage. Only 6 per cent of girls, compared with 14 per cent of boys, are expected to complete primary education. According to the UN, young girls are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth in their lifetime than to graduate from primary school.
Having never attended school, many of the women were illiterate prior to joining the Roots project. Now they attend adult literacy classes three times a week, in addition to special workshops. “We teach them some English and basic mathematics, which will hopefully help them find other jobs in the future,” Lugor says. While the women are welcome to stay at the centre as long as necessary, the ultimate aim is to prepare them to succeed outside of the project.
With 100 per cent of the sales proceeds going directly to the women, the Roots Project relies on donations to finance the centre's operations. “We receive funding from NGOs for specific interventions, but we don't have permanent, long-term funding to support the centre,” Lugor says. “We hope that by raising awareness of our activities, we will be able to secure a stable funding source.”
Given the small size of the project, it runs with minimal overhead costs. Most of the funding is channelled to services that directly benefit the women, such as transport, food and education.
But according to Lugor, extraordinary expenses arise and require special fundraising efforts. “A few months ago, the bus that brings the women home safely broke down, but it took us a long time to replace it because we had to apply for special funding.”
Hopes for a better future
The first two years of independence continued to be a struggle for many South Sudanese. Economic austerity and ongoing tensions with Sudan ate into the euphoria of what an independent South Sudan could achieve. Many migrated to Juba hoping for employment opportunities, but the lack of private-sector jobs and the rising urban population have created fertile ground for crime.
“Last year was very difficult,” Miri says. “Many people cannot afford to buy food and are stealing. Cecilia adds: “We have independence now, but there is still no peace. People used to sleep outside during the hot months, but now they sleep inside even during the day. People are afraid.”
Early July this year, South Sudan sold its oil in the international markets for the first time after a 16-month break in production. Many hope that with oil revenues flowing again, the economy will get back on track and that the benefits of independence will start trickling down to the masses.
The hopes of many women at the Roots Project revolve around a better future for their families and children. Cecilia hopes that the country's leadership will make the right decisions for the future generations: “I hope the president will announce more funds for education. We need better universities for our future.”
To find out more about the Roots Project, visit http://www.rootsofsouthsudan.org/
Simona Foltyn has a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University focusing on economic policy, and has lived and worked in both Sudan and South Sudan.