Sarah Ajith James arrived in Washington last Sunday night, just five months after her country -- South Sudan -- seceded from Sudan and became the world' s 193rd nation, knowing that the road to equality would be long and difficult for women in the world's newest country.
James, chairperson of the South Sudan Women's General Association, was one of seven women activists from seven different states in the youngest country in the world, they had traveled to Washington to attend the Gender Symposium and the South Sudan International Engagement Conference, the first two international conferences on South Sudan's future, co-hosted by the United States, South Sudan, UN Women and the Institute For Inclusive Security, a U.S. non-governmental organization.
"It is a great privilege to be one of the participants in the Symposium," James told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview.
"This is a vital opportunity to ensure that the next few years of stabilization bring opportunities, and don't reinforce or create new types of exclusion," James said.
As the representative of her home state of Jonglei, James and her colleagues made policy recommendations for the South Sudan Development Plan, which was evaluated and formalized at the International Engagement Conference. Seven of South Sudan's 10 states were represented at the Washington conferences.
For four days, James and her colleagues worked to condense 37 gender-specific recommendations down to four "urgent" development priorities:
-- Establish a Women's Bank with start-up capital of a minimum of 10 million U.S. dollars, which would provide women with low- interest loans.
-- Require 25 percent of all investment in agriculture to target women's rate of crop production and ensure their access to markets.
-- Ensure half of resources in the Community DevelopmentFunds ( financed through a 5 percent share of oil revenues) are allocated to women's health, education, economic and physical security.
-- Enable each state to double adult women's functional literacy.
Only 12 percent of women in South Sudan can read and write, James said. Under the proposals, each of South Sudan's 10 states would received a sum of money to fund reading and writing programs aimed at doubling the literacy rate in every state by 2014.
Overall, James said, the development priorities are just as much about changes in attitude as they are about policy.
"We got independence, but there's a lot of work we have to do," she said.
"We have to have a new way of doing things. We have been at war for so long, we have adopted a culture of violence. But if we have a new way of doing things, we are going to progress," James said.
At 48 years old, James is a veteran among the small but dedicated group of women's activists in South Sudan.
She called South Sudan's new democracy "the will of the people, " but at the same time she worried that women's rights would be all but marginalized in her new country.
In many countries where war has recently ended, James said, post-conflict aid and private sector development all too often gives power and influence back to the male-dominated, elite power structures responsible for conflict in the first place.
James sees investment in South Sudan's women as an investment in peace.
She said women in South Sudan reached out to their female counterparts in Sudan during the civil war, meeting under trees and beginning a dialogue that ultimately led to a peace agreement in 2005.
After the 2005 agreement, South Sudan embarked on an ambitious democratization process, staging parliamentary elections, re- writing its constitution, and holding a nationwide referendum on secession from Sudan.
Around 98.5 percent of voters chose secession, and on July 9 South Sudan became the world's newest nation.
During the post-war transition period -- a time often marred by the all-too-familiar scenes of tribal tensions and ensuing violence -- James and the South Sudan Women's General Association was busy leading civic outreach programs, observing elections, and working with a coalition of women to advocate for women's rights in the drafting of the transitional constitution.
James won a big grant from UN Women in 2010, getting financial support, training programs, and extensive expert support on the ground in Jonglei and surrounding states as she lead her grassroots voting efforts.
Women comprised 52 percent of all voters in the 2011 referendum, and they overwhelmingly voted for independence from Sudan as well.
The civil wars, which raged off and on from 1955 to 2005, took a huge toll on the women of South Sudan. Progress will be slow for them. To this day, women in South Sudan exercise very little control over the prevailing power structures in their new country.
"In South Sudan, women don't have property, they don't have finances, and they don't exercise a big role in the banks," James said.
But for James, it's enough for now that women are beginning to get a share of the international investment and oil revenues that their government will use to fund many of its new programs.
And despite a somewhat tempered evaluation of women's rights in South Sudan, James was "extremely optimistic" that the country could rely on its women to lead it from its war-torn past to a place of peace and security.
"Women are the key for development," she said. "We can be the bridge between the south and the north. We are peacemakers, and we will play an active role in nation-building."