On the 8th of March, working together with urban refugees from the Republic of Sudan, HDC and UNHCR held an observation of International Women's Day. The observation, part of a global tradition that is now in its 105th year, was held at Medan Zain in Gudele II, Juba. It focused attention on two overlapping issues that are core to HDC’s work, displacement and gender justice.
HDC and UNHCR are collaborating on the Juba Urban Intervention Program to support the capital’s 5900 urban refugee population - most of who are from the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in the Republic of Sudan. The project encourages and supports community self-management, and has the advancement of women’s participation and inclusion in both economic and political decision-making as an important goal.
330 people, most of them female urban refugees turned up in Gudele II for a community forum on gender justice and inclusion. Under a banner that recruited attendees to a 'pledge for gender parity', an eager audience of refugee representatives, activists and NGO workers reflected on gender justice in the context of conflict, displacement and poverty.
The day’s speeches encouraged both hosts and refugees to treat one another with fairness and respect regardless of their gender, ethnicity or nationality. Representatives from UNHCR, HDC and the refugee populations endorsed the support of community-led efforts that recognise women's contributions to society, and that empower women so they can play an even greater part in creating a better, more sustainable future for all.
The highlight of the day was a debate on a matter that defines the issues at the heart of the struggle for gender justice — should the practice of early marriage be continued? The refugee groups split themselves into opponents and defenders of early marriage, and both debate teams did their best to represent the two sides of the debate. Unpacking the impact on teenage girls of disrupted education and risky early pregnancies, they demonstrated how the struggle over early marriage spoke to more expansive discussions of women's role in society.
Often, early marriage is described as a cultural issue, fundamental to the identity of those who practice it. Those who aren't part of these cultures are therefore asked to respectfully refrain from shaming the group into abandoning its cultural practices. The debate however, revealed the fault lines internal to these groups, and the powerful way in which those who have first hand experience define their choice, and its potential costs. Far from needing to be persuaded, it was clear that the girls and women subjected to these cultural practices have strong opinions on their freedom and welfare that need to be respected and supported. Speaker after speaker rose to speak against the injustice of treating girls differently from boys, and of the societal costs of cutting off women's potential economic and intellectual contributions by denying them the knowledge, skills and exposure that came from staying in school.
The audience was particularly moved by a refugee girl who was proposed for marriage aged 13. In the deciding contribution to the debate, she looked back with gratitude at that pivotal moment when she turned down marriage and chose to continue with her education. She encouraged the community to allow other girls the same freedom to go to school, and to equip themselves with the knowledge to tackle the new world of the present, and that of the future.
Organising lead - Mwalana Kuot Kuot for HDC Protection
Head of Protection - Laban Osoro
Report - Luala Abraham