I am a young woman from South Sudan, also known as the world’s youngest nation, which is still in a process of building our democracy after years of protracted conflict. I am passionate about my country's future, and confident that inclusion of women, especially young women, in the nation-building process is crucial to achieving sustainable and prosperous peace, and a strong democracy. With our first general election coming up, now is the time to take action.
Because of that, today I choose to share my story.
I grew up in a conflict-affected state, but I was shielded in a little bubble in Juba by my grandparent. The beautiful river Nile was ten minutes’ walk from my then house, yet my cousins, my friends and I, were forbidden to go near it and so many other surrounding areas. Like us, for so long, many young South Sudanese grew up and were deprived of knowing or seeing the beauty of South Sudan. I was taught – indirectly - never to question or seek answers.
My journey started as a tag-along into the policy space because I am passionate about governance issues. I realized early on that not so many young women, and only a few women overall, are involved in decision-making spaces. I asked myself whether this is by design or due to ignorance; I still don't have an answer to this question.
As a young woman, I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of conflict and violence on women and girls. I have also witnessed the resilience and strength of a South Sudanese woman; I was inspired by the stories of brave girls and women during the liberation movement who fought and continue to fight for the rights and emancipation of women. These women are transformational leaders who inspire young women to believe in their own potential and to take action to create change.
As South Sudan embarks on this journey of building its permanent constitution, as stipulated in chapter six of the Revitalized -Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) 2018, it has to renew its social contract with its citizens. Women’s participation at all levels of this process is paramount, but more often than not women are side-lined or given a token seat. It is high time for inclusion of women from all walks of life, but especially young women. We have unique perspectives and experiences that must be heard and reflected in building a more democratic and equitable society. And it has been shown time and time again in countries around the world, that meaningful inclusion of women results in lasting peace, and more equitable and prosperous societies.
But talking about inclusion is not enough. I have seen the many barriers that prevent young women from participating in decision-making processes and taking on leadership roles. This includes lack of mentoring opportunities, hostility and patronizing attitudes to women in decision-making spaces, little to no inter-generational dialogue about gender equality, and pervasive patriarchy that still exists in our society. I could go on.
Next week many of my sisters will be taking part in a UN-led conference on “Women’s Transformational Leadership.” What is meant by that is a leadership style that focuses on inspiring, empowering individuals and teams to reach their full potential. As a woman leader in South Sudan I saw to our current leaders - it is high time to listen to your constituents. All of them. What kind of legacy do you want to leave? How many young women are you mentoring or creating space for?
I believe that it is critical for us to invest in the development of the next generation of transformational women leaders in South Sudan. We, I mean the South Sudanese leaders, women-led organizations, regional and internationals communities, and others, must provide young women with the skills, support, and opportunities they need to take on leadership roles and create a better future for themselves, their communities, and societies as a whole.
Young women and girls have always been present but are too often ignored. Yet no one understands better the history and potential that defines South Sudan. Our experiences still need to be heard and acknowledged. That is why I am here today, to advocate for the inclusion of young women in all spheres of leadership, from decision-making processes to conferences like this one. For this reason, I am also here to call on all of you to support young women and girls as they pursue their dreams and make a positive impact. It is time to listen to our ideals and voices- give us the opportunity, and we can transform South Sudan.
Written by Catherine Vitaliano for the Nobel Women's Initiative
Catherine Vitaliano is a lawyer from South Sudan, a fellow at the African Leadership Center, and an alumna of Nobel Women’s Initiative’s Sister to Sister mentorship program. She works to empower young women's participation in leadership and peace-building. Following the signing of the Revitalized Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan in 2018, Catherine was engaged in the legislative reviews and constitutional reform processes of the country. She has also served as technical support to the Civil Society Representative on Public Finance Management Oversight Committee, offering her expertise to women leaders.
In the run up to the International Conference on Women's Transformational Leadership hosted in Juba, South Sudan on 13-16 February, 2023, Nobel Women's Initiative reached out to young feminist activists and leaders in the country to get their thoughts and reflections on the opportunities and challenges for women and girls, and on building sustainable peace in the world's youngest democracy. For more about the meeting click here.