In 2015, I was selected out of over a thousand applicants to represent South Sudan and the entire African continent in Nobel Women’s Initiative's Sister-to-Sister mentorship program. I was among three sisters in the program - Neesa from Honduras, Teteh from Myanmar, and myself from South Sudan. I didn’t know that what I was doing for my country was noble, until I got into the program and was rubbing shoulders with the most powerful women in the world - the Nobel laureates. That made me appreciate how powerful I - a poor girl from a small village in South Sudan – was.
In the Sister-to-Sister Mentorship Program I learnt a lot. I developed advocacy and networking skills, fundraising and communications, self care and public speaking. Beyond that I met amazing friends among the Nobel laureates, the sisters, and many Canadians who opened their arms wide for me with love.
During the program we visited Carleton University and I spoke about my work in South Sudan. A young Canadian woman who identified herself as having Somali descent, asked me a question I will never forget: “I have heard and seen on the news the horrific stories from Africa and South Sudan about the war and rape of women, how do you deal with that?’’ That question pierced me sharp in my heart. I started crying violently.
The question had triggered me and opened old wounds. Here I was thinking and feeling like a superhero saving lives and supporting others, yet personally I hadn’t healed myself. That was the first time I opened up about my story of being a survivor of child rape. A survivor who had learned to cover her wounds. Because, when it happened to me, by someone I called uncle who used to visit us, and I told my mother, she beat me to silence and told me never to tell anyone. So I learned to cover the rotten wound, but I hadn’t healed. I shared this with the people on that trip, and they were the ones who helped me heal - they listened to me, they spoke to me regularly, and took me to counselling. That is how I started cleaning and healing my rotten wound. I am eternally grateful to them.
The program opened up many other opportunities. I was invited to the Association for Women's Rights in Development in Brazil, and it was there that my own passion to start a women’s organization was born. With the support of a few friends back home, NWI and people I met there, Crown The Woman came into existence. It is a feminist woman’s rights organization working on harnessing the potential of South Sudanese girls and women so that they can contribute towards building our nation, and fighting for women’s rights. I am proud to share that we have established the first ever national toll-free gender-based violence hotline. Survivors can call to get a wide variety of support, all paid for by us, including transportation to the hospital, medical treatment, counselling services, temporary shelter, and others. Through it we have already helped over 300 women and girls, and even some boys and men, to begin healing from all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
The mentorship experience I had through Sister-to-Sister was so important to me, that we made sure to do that at Crown The Woman as well. We mentor girls, young women, and older women through our initiative “I am my sister’s keeper”.
This work led me to be nominated to be part of South Sudan’s peace process - at the High Level Revitalization Forum in Addis Abba and Khartoum through the South Sudan Women Coalition for Peace, and the South Sudan Civil Society Forum. Through our hard collective work, we secured 35% affirmative action for women (though we wanted 50%) and other milestones. But implementation is still lacking. So with the support of Oxfam, we initiated the South Sudanese Girls and Women are Born to Lead campaign to advocate for implementation, promote women’s leadership and showcase how women and girls are leading socially, politically and economically, all over South Sudan.
The total transformation of South Sudan is in our hands as South Sudanese. Donors, regional and international communities, and women activists around the world are supporting us. But until we realize that it is us who have to respect human rights, dignity and life, and it is us who have to welcome and embrace reconciliation, truth telling, healing and forgiveness, we will not know peace.
Written by Riya Williams Yuyada for the Nobel Women's Initiative
Riya Williams Yuyada is a peacebuilder and activist from South Sudan. She is the co-founder and Director of Crown The Woman, a feminist grassroots organization working to support and empower women and girls, and promote gender equality. She is an alumna of NWI's Sister-to-Sister mentorship program. In 2021 she received a Ginetta Sagan Foundation award from Amnesty International USA honouring her work to support survivors of sexual violence, and advocacy for women’s rights and justice. Hear Riya tell her story on TedX in Kakuma refugee camp.
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.