Riya William Yuyada was born in Sudan in 1991, into a decades-old civil war. Just months later, her mother fled with her and her elder sister to her own homeland, Uganda. The girls’ father chose to stay behind. Riya’s childhood was one of poverty and loss: she sold maize on the streets, rose at 4 am to help in her grandmother’s restaurant, and when her mother grew too ill to care for her children, Riya and her sister went to separate families. When she was 10, Riya’s father found and reclaimed his daughters, and Riya finally went regularly to school. Her traumatic childhood, she later said, left her, “thirsty for peace, equal rights and justice.” She went on to university, then returned to newly-independent South Sudan, determined to help her people. By 2015, she was known as a rising community leader and chosen to attend a six-week Nobel Women’s Initiative Sister-to-Sister mentorship and training program.
Riya has worked in internally displaced persons camps, co-founded Play for Peace South Sudan, and was a founding member of Crown the Woman South Sudan, a national grassroots organization fighting for the rights and empowerment of women and girls. In June 2018 she gave an inspiring talk at Kakuma Camp, Kenya, at the first TEDx event ever held in a refugee camp.
Growing up in Uganda, what connection did you have to South Sudan?
In elementary school, I was bullied for being from Sudan and for being a refugee, so I started saying I was Ugandan. When I was 13, my father took me back to South Sudan for the first time. The roads had no tarmac and the houses were grass, but I was so welcomed by my uncle and other family. Everywhere we went, my dad would point – this is your relative’s house, this is where you were born, this is where your mother was born... I felt at home. I knew I would return.
By the time you got back, the joy of independence had given way to yet more war. How did you find a path to peace work?
I started working for Mundri Relief and Development Association and served in the civic education department, encouraging people in displaced persons camps to think about coexisting peacefully. One day, I met an old woman who said, “My daughter, you are too young to be talking to us about peace. These people have killed our husbands and abducted our children. You don’t know how we’ve suffered.”
I felt helpless, but gathered courage and said, “I hear your pain grandmother. But do you want to just continue staying in this camp running from one place to another looking for safety?”
She said, “You’re right, my daughter. We want to go back home. I bless you, may God bless you and may you continue to be our voice.”
Shortly after that, a war crisis erupted and we had to run for our lives. Yet from that woman’s blessing, I gained more energy and zeal to keep on.
Was that why you helped found South Sudan Play for Peace?
Play for Peace is a global network that brings together children in conflict-affected communities; playing lets them be kids and brings them together. South Sudan was a fertile place for this. We used local games to promote peace, moving from village to village, school to school. Seeing the kids laugh and have a chance to feel like children was healing for them and for us.
But because of the war, schools where we worked closed, and many people ran away to seek refuge at displaced persons camps or in Uganda.
How did you come to found Crown the Woman South Sudan?
My house is near a market, mainly women selling foodstuffs as a way to feed their families. After I went to Canada in 2015, I realized I needed to do more for these and other women. In addition to problems caused by the war, South Sudan is a highly patriarchal country. You do not speak about rape. More than half of women marry before 18. Only 16 percent are educated.
I called a few sisters, friends. We were hesitant – we had no money or resources – but we officially started in 2016.
Today, we work to encourage girls to become educated. We do trauma healing, sometimes contribute money from our pockets to help pay their school fees or buy books and pens.
We also do a lot of gender-based violence prevention and awareness. We advocate economic empowerment and have trained women in income-generating activities, for instance, professional catering. Women are taught how to cook, but not how to use that skill to make money. We use mentorship as a tool, bringing in women who have faced challenges and survived to share their stories.
Are you also involved in advocating for peace?
Yes, we are part of the South Sudan Women’s Coalition, more than 44 women’s organizations from South Sudan and refugee camps outside the country, calling for an end to this stupid, useless war. We advocate for the inclusion of women in the peace processes, in traditional government and in all making of policy. And we share what happens in the peace process with communities.
Do you have hope for South Sudan’s future?
Our parents lived in war, we were born in war, and some of us are ourselves having children in war. But we all have hope. If you go to the house of a family that has nothing to eat, they welcome you warmly, give you water to drink and a chair to sit on. What little they have, they willingly share with a stranger. That’s hope. I see many youth advocating for peace – that is hope. Women tell me, “One day South Sudan will be a fine place.”
I see a lot of hope.
In my organization we say, “We’re here to crown the women of South Sudan, we’re here to change their lives, and we’re not going to give up.