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Empowering South Sudan’s women and girls is key to fostering peace

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Women entrepreneurs make biscuits to sell at a site for Internally Displaced Persons in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal State in South Sudan. Women entrepreneurs make biscuits to sell at a site for Internally Displaced Persons in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal State in South Sudan.

Women in South Sudan face extraordinary challenges. Rates of sexual and gender-based violence are among the highest in the world. Opportunities for education and vocational training are scarce. Laws and patriarchal norms limit women’s ability to inherit land, start a business, and lead in public affairs. Most of the more than 4 million South Sudanese who are forcibly displaced are women and girls.

In a country where four in five people endure extreme poverty and 70% need humanitarian assistance, women and girls bear the brunt of depravation, shouldering disproportionate responsibility as caregivers, breadwinners, and protectors for families and communities that have been ravaged by conflict, submerged by floods, and battered by repeated natural and human-made disasters.

But women in South Sudan also demonstrate extraordinary resilience. Survivor networks and referral services empower women to support each other in seeking safety and recovery from gender-based violence (GBV). In business, village savings and loan associations have allowed women to start profitable enterprises that make it possible to feed their families and send their children to school. And with the historic mediating role of chiefs and elders having been disrupted by inter-generational contests for influence, women’s groups play a vital role in forging peace in and across communities by dissuading their sons from violent acts.  

Indeed, social and economic empowerment of women and girls is the key to fostering peace and sustainable development in South Sudan at a time when the country faces a fragile window for change  as it seeks to consolidate the gains of a 2018 peace agreement and overcome the lingering challenges of persistent violence and a chronic humanitarian crisis.

Led by the Ministry for Gender, Child and Social Welfare (MGCSW), in partnership with the World Bank and UN Women, the Women’s Social and Economic Empower Project (WSEEP) seeks to capitalize on this moment for change by increasing girls and women’s access to livelihood, entrepreneurial, and GBV services and strengthening the capacity of the government to provide these services over time. With a financing package of $70 million, the WSEEP has four components, centered on providing community empowerment support to women and girls, establishing a women’s economic opportunity facility, enhancing services for survivors of GBV, and building the institutional capacity of the country’s Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare (MGCSW).

The project will play an important role in advancing the Government of South Sudan’s objective to put women and girls in the driver’s seat of the country’s future . The World Bank strongly supports the Government’s ambition. The WSEEP is fully aligned with the Bank’s latest Country Engagement Note for South Sudan, which cites support for women and girls as a cross-cutting pillar of its broader strategic objectives. It also acts on the conviction–which has been continuously championed by World Bank Vice President for Eastern and Southern Africa Hafez Ghanem–that empowering women holds the key to unlocking peace, development, and a more prosperous future for all people, both in South Sudan and across the continent.

The WSEEP’s first component centers on community empowerment, and will increase the access of women and girls to social and livelihoods support services through a community-based approach. At the heart of the intervention will be the construction of five, new women economic community centers (WECCs) in states across the country. There is also provision of social and economic services for women and girls at additional, ‘satellite’ sites within these states. WECCs will offer a package of integrated services in women and girl-friendly spaces, including  starter kits, and grants, GBV response and referrals, as well as training in business, leadership, financial literacy, advocacy, and peacebuilding. Men and boys will also be engaged to mentor and advocate for women and girls in their communities. 

The second WSEEP component will establish a women’s economic opportunity facility to provide technical assistance and grants to women-led small, and growing businesses. Technical assistance activities will advise women-led businesses on how to develop contextual products and services, accelerate business growth, and improve capacity, with a focus on business management training, leadership coaching, and raising finance. The facility will also provide grants to help women-led businesses make critical investments to grow and sustain their enterprises, such as purchasing key equipment, accessing digital technologies, and upskilling staff.

In its third component, the WSEEP will provide critical services for survivors of GBV, including support for a national GBV hotline and the establishment of a new safe house for survivors in Juba. The hotline will enhance access of GBV survivors to psychosocial support, health, police, child support, legal aid, and shelter by offering a tollfree, 24x7 line they can call to get information on where the nearest relevant authority or service provider is located and receive remote counselling and psychosocial support. The safe house will provide women and girls who have endured violence with basic protection services and resources, including accommodation, protection, clothing, medical care, counseling, and legal support, enabling them to recover from, and seek legal remedy for, the traumas they endured.

Finally, under the fourth component, the MGCSW will receive capacity building support to more actively and ably play their role as the leading government body for policymaking and coordination on women’s empowerment issues. At the heart of the capacity building effort will be the construction of a new ministry headquarters, with office facilities, internet access, and other resources that allow it to better perform its functions, recruit and retain staff, and engage with partners. The component will also train and accredit MGCSW social workers across the country to better address GBV cases and support family mediation, and prepare an institutional capacity needs assessment of the MGCSW and finance the trainings, workshops, and conferences needed to close key gaps.

Although the challenges facing women in South Sudan remain enormous, the strength, resilience, and potential they exude is more powerful still. By addressing vulnerabilities and building on strengths, the WSEEP aims to help South Sudanese women live better, more productive lives.

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