Throughout the month of March staff at the U.S. Consulate General in Juba joined celebrations throughout Southern Sudan for International Women's Month, highlighting women and girls who are building their country's future. While we worked to bring extra attention to these issues during International Women's Month, women and girls are at the forefront of U.S. diplomacy and development efforts here year-round. The U.S. Agency for Development (USAID) focuses on empowering women and girls and mainstreaming gender concerns into all of their programming, and will continue dedicated efforts to promote access to education for girls, improve maternal health, and support women's political and economic participation at all levels in Southern Sudan. As President Obama said in his remarks this month: "Empowering women across the globe is not simply the right thing to do, it is also smart foreign policy. Countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women enjoy equal rights, equal voices, and equal opportunities." The women of Southern Sudan are proving this every day.
In Juba, on International Women's Day, March 8, consulate staff members marched from John Garang's mausoleum to the Cultural Center with over 100 women, men and young people, including women police officers, church groups, and cultural organizations. Dr. Garang's mausoleum was a fitting place to start the event, given his recognition of women as "the marginalized of the marginalized," and his commitment to women's political participation in rebuilding Sudan. The heat did not dampen our group's enthusiasm as we marched through Juba, drawing cheers and thumbs-up signs from passersby, especially women. We were happy to join in with the singing and dancing and even went so far as to attempt some ululating at the Cultural Center. Acting Consul General Roger Moran delivered remarks on behalf of the United States. The Vice President of Southern Sudan, along with the Minister of Gender, Minister of Education, and the Chairperson of the South Sudan Human Rights Commission (SSHRC) all spoke, highlighting the role of women in Southern Sudan's past, present and future, including their vital work in securing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and their ongoing participation in post-referendum negotiations.
Indeed, when Gender Minister Agnes Lasuba reminded the audience that women registered to vote for the referendum in record numbers and represented 52 percent of voter turnout, the crowd cheered enthusiastically. And when the SSHRC Chair declared: "Women's rights are human rights!" everyone got to their feet and cheered even louder. Participants also stressed the need to promote equal access to education for girls, eliminate practices like early marriage and bride price, and to ensure women are represented at every level of government.
In Wau, in Western Bahr el Ghazal State, Consulate Juba's stabilization team members also joined local women's organizations, girl scouts, women police officers, the State Governor and other officials to celebrate International Women's Day, marching proudly through the town. And in Nimule, in Eastern Equatoria State, I joined yet another stabilization team to speak at a similar event. A lively youth group performed a dramatic piece about gender-based violence before a captivated crowd, addressing themes including domestic violence, access to justice, and women's right to own property. Boys and girls, as well as their teachers, parents, and grandparents, cheered when the heroine received justice and saw her abusive husband jailed.
These were just two examples of the tremendous potential of women to shape this new country. Last week I spent a day with representatives of the local Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugee's (UNHCR) speaking with women and girls in Rumbek (John Garang's hometown) who had returned to Southern Sudan from Khartoum. One teenager echoed the feelings of the whole group when she told me, "Even though it is hard starting over, we want to stay, because this is our home. We want to go school, and help others learn." They want to continue their education, and have the freedom to choose their future -- including when and who to marry -- and the opportunity to build their country. Later that week, in the town of Akobo near the border with Ethiopia, a group of women leaders met with USAID colleagues and told us about their hopes for the future, their entrepreneurial spirit evident. One woman described her commitment to mentoring younger girls: "We want to train them to become leaders like us."
Generations of women and girls have spoken with one voice this month, joined by fathers, sons, brothers and friends expressing solidarity and support. We're proud to stand with all of them.