Peace activist Margaret Lowilla speaks about promoting women’s rights in South Sudan
This year, South Sudan celebrated its 10th anniversary of independence after decades of war and conflict. With the support of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and the UN system, the country is making steps towards lasting peace, stability, and prosperity.
In the context of the efforts to build a sustainable future for South Sudan, it is important to ensure the active participation of all members of society, including women who are often underrepresented in peace and decision-making. With women and girls being disproportionately affected by conflict, it is critical to acknowledge and integrate their diverse experiences in peace processes. To promote their full participation in achieving and sustaining peace, UN Peacekeeping seeks to amplify the voices of women peacebuilders.
Peace activist Margaret Lowilla is a prime example of such a young woman seeking to bring positive change in South Sudan. She currently works for the government as a Programme Officer at the Women’s International Peace Centre. Margaret was a Peace, Security and Development Early Career Fellow at the African Leadership Centre — King’s College London, and has worked with local civil society organizations on women’s rights, women’s political participation and lobby and advocacy efforts against early and forced marriages.
Margaret shared with us how she is seeking to change the narrative about South Sudan, talked about some of the projects she is currently working on, and described the reality of being a woman in South Sudan.
Why did you decide to become a peace activist?
I was born and raised outside of South Sudan due to the years of protracted civil conflict. I spent most of my childhood in Kenya, a foreign country which never quite felt like home. However, I belonged to an active community of South Sudanese in Nairobi that was fighting for peace. In fact, many of my childhood memories involve spending time at the Sudan Women Association in Nairobi (SWAN) centre.
When I grew older, in university, I often found myself in conversations with peers where South Sudan was always associated with war and violence. This inspired my journey as a peace activist. I wanted to contribute to changing the narrative of South Sudan. There is so much beauty and hope in this country that is seldom spoken about.
You hold a Bachelor’s Degree and are currently pursuing a Master’s degree. In your opinion, how can education help promote peace and security in conflict-ridden areas?
Education is a very important tool in the promotion of peace and security. It opens people’s minds and allows people to think about the world from a broader perspective. The limitation of a gun is that it only teaches about domination through violence. Education offers an avenue for developing social cohesion, respecting cultural differences, promoting a shared sense of belonging and acquiring skills and knowledge that can equip people to be engaged and active citizens. It provides a pathway to enlightenment and opens people up to a world of possibilities.
Tell us about a project that had a positive impact on your community.
In line with my goal to change the narrative around South Sudan, I had an opportunity to contribute to a collection of stories, Covid Stories from East Africa and Beyond. In Chapter 26, I highlighted the solidarity among South Sudanese women even during times of crisis. I also wrote an Opinion article as a contribution to the African Leadership Centre’s COVID-19 Research, South Sudan Youth Agency in a Time of COVID 19. I argued that the efforts of young people in leading COVID-19 awareness through the use of art and information-sharing innovations such as the Blue Messenger Bicycle.
I also highlighted how a youth artist collective, Ana Taban, has capitalized art and the digital space for sensitization on COVID-19 and peace advocacy campaigns.
What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
Currently, the Women’s International Peace Centre is working on amplifying the influence of women leaders on the peace and political process in the country. South Sudan was engulfed in a civil war from 2013 to 2018, which saw the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods, displacement of millions, destruction of property and widespread violence against women and girls. The Peace Centre supports women peacebuilders and organizations to ensure the gender responsive implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), and participation in all related processes at the national level including in the ongoing permanent constitution-making process and transitional justice process.
We are also advocating for the construction of a borehole at Gumbo internally displaced persons (IDP) camp as a prevention measure against sexual and gender-based violence. The organization has also participated in the review of the National Action Plan (2015–2020) on the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and is currently engaged in the drafting of the second generation action plan.
What are the main challenges that women face in South Sudan?
In South Sudan, women have to grapple with patriarchal cultural norms which largely relegate them to the domestic sphere. Women and girls are still perceived as incapable of making meaningful contributions in decision-making spaces and are treated as the property of their husbands or fathers. There is still practice of early and forced child marriages, which interrupts girls’ education and adds to the high level of illiteracy among South Sudanese women and girls. Furthermore, women and girls undertake most of the (unpaid) care work at home and in their communities, limiting their opportunity to actively participate in political, economic and social activities.
How can the involvement of more women in peace processes help promote peace and security?
Women have always been involved, but the focus on formal, state-centric peace processes overshadows their contributions. In South Sudan, women engage in everyday peacebuilding through the provision of food, shelter, care for the sick, elderly and the wounded, livelihood support, as well as providing support to victims of sexual and gender based violence. Women at the grassroots, refugee women, and internally displaced women, organize small groups which serve as discussion forums on issues affecting them. Through these small groups, they then come up with context specific solutions. In this way, they are already engaging in peace processes.
Despite these, women are heavily excluded from the formal peace process. Transitional periods from war to peace have the potential to be transformative if they are inclusive and participatory. Involving women in the more formal realm of peacebuilding provides an opportunity to build consensus between state leaders and the wider society, which contributes to legitimacy and sustainable peace.
What needs to improve for women to have a greater role to play in peace processes and decision-making?
There has to be a radical shift in cultural and social norms. In South Sudan the decision-making space is generally reserved for the men and the elderly. The notion that women and girls should be seen and not heard, still persists.
Safe spaces need to be created where women and girls can freely express themselves without fear. Currently in South Sudan, the civic space is shrinking. Women and girls face intimidation and threats when they voice their opinions in public forums. Some youth organizations have also reported that the registration for their organizations are being revoked. We need to dedicate more effort to ensure that youth and women can participate freely in a safe environment.
Formal structures can also enable and amplify youth and women’s voices for peace. High-level meetings and gatherings of United Nation entities have often provided opportunities for women and youth to speak on an international stage. More consideration should be given to amplify and strengthen local peacebuilding efforts.
Do you have a message to inspire women to become peace activists in their own communities?
We all have something to contribute. Peace activism starts in our small spheres of influence — at home, in school, in our neighbourhoods. Start where you are, use what you have… sing songs of peace, write poetry, play intercommunal sports to build and strengthen relationships with neighbouring communities.
We all have a part to play in ensuring peace in our communities.