This post originally appeared on Change.org's Human Rights blog.
JUBA, Southern Sudan — As the frenetic excitement about southern Sudan's recent referendum wears off, the challenges of building up a new country from scratch loom. For some segments of southern Sudan’s society, the obstacles are even greater.
“The women of southern Sudan are ‘the marginalized of the marginalized,’ as Dr. John Garang used to say,” said Anyieth D’Awol, quoting the late rebel leader who saw many of the problems in Sudan originating from the Khartoum government’s negligence. As one stark example, literacy in southern Sudan stands at 24 percent, but only 12 percent of women can read and write.
Anyieth is southern Sudanese, but she first visited the South when she was 27. She studied human rights in the UK and has a law degree, fields she pursued because “I never thought I would stay in England. Always knew I wanted to come back to Sudan.”
“I don’t have a war story,” she said, in a tone that almost sounded like she was apologizing.
But Anyieth acknowledged that she has been able to return to southern Sudan and work in human rights because she doesn’t live with the trauma of witnessing decades of civil war. The distance also afforded her the perspective to notice an opportunity for southern Sudanese women.
In March 2009, Anyieth launched the ROOTS Project. It’s the first initiative in southern Sudan focused on preserving and promoting the arts while generating income for women.
In other countries in the region, like Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, where tourism fuels a significant segment of the economy, a visitor would be hard-pressed to go a day without being approached by someone plying traditional wares or handicrafts. But in southern Sudan, the women who create arts and crafts are often not aware that they possess unique, marketable skills.
“Arts and crafts are not widely seen as something of interest by those who create them,” Anyieth said. “People usually made them for themselves and mainly for events.”
In Sudan, another factor is also at play. During decades of civil war, creating traditional crafts fell by the wayside. With people ever on the move due to violence, the typical pattern of handing down traditions from one generation to the next was disrupted.
“The most difficult thing for us is a near total lack of documentation about what was typical from all the different tribes,” said Anyieth. A long-term project of the ROOTS team is to travel around the region to talk to chiefs about and document typical crafts.
Last fall, ROOTS opened a workshop and boutique here in the South Sudan capital of Juba. Most of the current 30 members come to the center regularly to work on their products and participate in literacy and numeracy classes. Women share their knowledge of a particular craft and pick up new ones. “We try and make it a comfortable place to work where skills are put to use, learned, and developed,” Anyieth said.
In particular, ROOTS focuses on recruiting women who are not employed, those who have returned to the South after living in the North, women associated with armed forces, mothers and especially young mothers, rural women, elders, and disabled women.
Naturally, a strong sense of community among the women is forming. They exchange stories about their husbands, share advice about children, health, and housekeeping. For Anyieth, the stories of domestic abuse, discussed so matter-of-factly among the women, is especially alarming.
“Women come, and they have scars, and you ask them what happen. They just say, ‘Ah, my husband.’ They don’t even try to hide it. Because it’s just happening to everybody,” she said.
While these conversations won’t immediately catalyze sweeping societal changes, the realization that other women are coping with the same challenges is having a noticeable positive effect. At the same time, the sense of self-worth and empowerment that comes from creating something that is valued by others is translating into women’s lives outside of the ROOTS workshop.
The boutique is filled with colorful beaded necklaces, earrings, belts, leather sandals, etched gourds, aprons and bags made of vibrant batiks, and pottery. An ornate Dinka corset hangs on display in one bright corner.
The customers who visit the boutique are mostly expats and southern Sudanese living in the capital, but Anyieth said that she hopes to expand the reach so that more southern Sudanese know about and have access to ROOTS products.
“What I have noticed is that many people here have not had the opportunity to see what other tribes do for arts and crafts,” Anyieth said, noting that ROOTS women represent 12 different ethnic groups from across the South.
The goal becomes all the more important now that southern Sudan is set on a course to become an independent country in just six months. “We want to build a strong nation, a proud nation,” Anyieth said.
Change.org is hosting a petition aimed at bolstering the efforts of advocates in southern Sudan to promote women’s rights in the soon-to-be independent country. Learn more and sign it here.