War, Peace, and Women in South Sudan: Q&A with Betty Ogwaro

A girl and woman displaced by fighting between government and rebel forces await medical care. Bor, South Sudan, January 2, 2014. (Ben Curtis/AP)

The news out of South Sudan has been terrible as the country struggles to implement a peace agreement in the midst of a civil war now entering its third year. These events were on the mind of Betty Ogwaro, member of the National Legislative Assembly of South Sudan and former Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, when she spoke to the Global Observatory’s Jill Stoddard. In this interview, the Hon. Ogwaro—a member of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders—answered questions about her ongoing work with women and girls in South Sudan, and her experience confronting Joseph Kony when part of the mediation team working in Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cattle raiding is a major source of conflict in the South Sudan states you work in, and you’re teaching women and girls to help stop it. How can women and girls have an impact on cattle raiding?

Cattle raiding in Eastern Equatoria, particularly among the cattle-keeping communities, has been practiced for ages. But now it has shifted dimensions; in the past, people would raid a few cattle and just go back to their wells so that they can add to their dowry. They didn’t have weapons, so people would go at night, open the corral, and walk away with some cattle. But now there’s a lot of small arms, and people seeing that cattle mean money, prestige, etc. It has become lethal, because when they go raiding, they kill. And then the community they’ve raided retaliates—they come back to raid and kill.

The main aim, according to the young boys who go and raid, is that they want to increase the number of cattle they have so that they can marry the most beautiful girl they love, and competition is always very high. And we had seen that when they come back from raiding, women receive them with adulation, and this is where women should play a role. Women must say, “Don’t come home because you have stolen, you are unclean.” The girls should say, “We don’t want you to marry us with these cattle which you have stolen, because it is not legal, so I don’t become an illegal wife.”

And this has been effective particularly in one community, in Kiala, where we told the women to reject these men, not let them come home. Don’t cook for them, don’t make love to them. And then women moved away from the whole village to the next village, and told the men, “Don’t follow us until you return the cattle you stole.” So it went on for about a week, and the men couldn’t tolerate it. So they had to go to the government and say, “Now we are returning the cattle because we want our wives back.”

The girls now sing songs about it, “I am a girl. I’m a beautiful girl. I’m from this village, I don’t want to be married with a stolen cow.” Or, “My mother didn’t receive my father back, he has come back with blood in his hands.” This is very important.

We guide this work with UN Security Resolution 1325, because when we talk about peace and security, we say, “You know, women, you need peace in your community so that you can go and cultivate the land, so that you live happily as you used to do, be in your community. You also want to be protected, because when these boys raid, the retaliation is on you. Because when either community comes back retaliating, the men run away, and it is the women who are left at home. Normally it is you who suffer, so we need protection.”

With connecting youth with women, peace and security, it is even better. We said, “It was about women, but now it is about you youth as well; because you are also a large part of the community that has been left out, you are told you are still too young, but you need to begin to make decisions now about yourselves, about the community, about the future of the country. You need to get involved, so let us now work together with the government and see that we protect the communities who live here.” We are beginning to sit youth at the decision-making tables at even the grassroots level with the chiefs, so that when the chiefs make a decision, the youth can also say, “We think that will not be good because it will harm us, or it will harm somebody.”

Are a lot of girls receptive to this?

The girls are very excited, very happy. When the girls do theater, you’ll find all these boys coming around, all the young girls come around, and all the young ones come to watch and say, “Oh, I also want to participate! I want a role in it.” So it is very effective.

In the past, women would say, “I don’t want my girls to go out into those community meetings.” But now they say, “Hey, when are you coming to have those trainings? Because when my girl comes back from there, she’s quite different from just hiding herself, keeping quiet. Now she gives her opinions.”

Just to remind our readers—can you give a snapshot of what life is like for a girl in South Sudan?

In general, life in South Sudan is difficult for everybody at the moment, because the conflict has ended and not ended: the agreement is signed, but not yet implemented.

For a girl, after the age of 11, she begins to think differently, because she is no longer a child. All these young boys start whistling to her, “Oh, you are now mature.” Girls begin to protect themselves, begin to hide, and their lives begin to get difficult from then on.

There’s also a very high school dropout rate from that age onward. So we have another program, Girls in School. We meet with these girls regularly and tell them that it is important you stay in school, and you have the right to say “no” to everything. If you’re being pushed, you say “no.” Even at home, if your parents say you have to marry, you can say “no.” And if they insist, you can go to the government, because now the constitution says it is not allowed. So you can go and say, “No, they are pushing me to a marriage I don’t want, and I’m not ready.”

A lot of parents are poor, so a girl would see that the mother is always in the field cultivating in order to have food for the family. So the girl drops out, really to support the mother, to do the housework, and then continue to do the field work with the mother. We are saying, “Yes, it is important that the parents cultivate the land because they cannot afford to buy food, and why buy food when the land is fertile?” But also, they should not burden the girls to work at the time they should be in school. Parents should really find a way that they do the farming during school days, and then the girls do their homework and help in the house when they have the free time.

They should also train boys that housework is not only for girls. For example, in a number of places, the water points are no longer very far like in the past, so a boy can go and bring water in the 20 liter jerrycan, and if he goes three times, it’s enough for a family. Why wait for the girl to come from school, go and collect water, clean the compound, and cook the food? We are trying to tell the boys, “Participate in the housework so that you relieve your parents—especially your mother—and relieve your sister from some of the jobs.” So boys are beginning to see that they have a role to play in the home.

Although this type of program is not a short-term quick win, we are beginning to see progress already, and more and more girls and boys are coming in. I’m thinking it will not be as long-term as we had originally thought.

I was reading your bio yesterday, and there’s this crazy line about how you were the first Sudanese woman to challenge Joseph Kony face to face. Can you tell me about that experience? What did you find in yourself to be able to do that?

I’ve been in women’s activism for a very long time, since I was young. I grew up a refugee; but I was privileged. I didn’t live in a refugee camp, but I could see how my friends were suffering there. So I think I picked up from there, all this campaigning for rights; be the best, do the best.

Joseph Kony came into my county, my Boma, the place where I live. And his soldiers were harassing people, cutting off lips, cutting off ears, cutting off the hands of people. But nobody was able to reach Joseph Kony; his soldiers would do things, and he was nowhere.

The government of South Sudan—at that time, it was Southern Sudan, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the CPA—put together a team to negotiate a peace agreement between Uganda and Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I was one of the five on the government team. So we had to track him in the bush. Dr. Riek Machar was our team leader, the chief mediator. From time to time, he would talk to Joseph Kony on the phone, and then we said, “No, we need to go and meet this man in person, because he gives instructions on the phone.” So Joseph Kony accepted that we could go and meet him, and initially said only the team, only the five of us, plus a few soldiers.

He didn’t want us to go to the camp where he was, but there was a middle camp between the government camp and the LRA camp. We met there. The first person I met was his deputy, Vincent Otti, whom he killed after we left. I asked him, “What was the purpose of cutting off the arms and ears and lips of the people from my own village, who are Acholis like you? You are from Uganda. Why did you bring your war to South Sudan?” I was overcome, I think because I had seen the people whose lips, ears had been cut off.

He said, “The soldiers did this because the Acholis refuse to listen.” I said, “What do you mean, they refuse to listen?” He said, “We told them that it’s not their duty to report us to the security. But they keep on reporting us. They keep on saying, ‘Oh, we have seen the LRA in this place,’ then the army will come after us. So that’s why we’re cutting off their arms.” And I said, “Ok, then why do you make people kill and eat their own relatives? You make young boys kill their mothers, put them in a cooking pot, then told them to eat them. Is that human?”

He didn’t answer. Then the following day, we met Kony, and that’s where I really took him on; because, how can you be human, what rights are you fighting for? If you say that you are fighting for the rights of the people, and these same people you are killing, and the same people, you are making their children eat their bodies—what right are you fighting for?

I couldn’t help myself, just pointing at his eyes. But he’s a very calm man. Even with all my reaction, he just listened, and then told me, “You are right, but we don’t kill people. If my soldiers did it, they don’t know the principles.” And I said, “If you are a real commander, you must have control of your soldiers.”

Then he asked us, “Now what do you want us to do?” I said, “What do you want to do? You want to remain in this bush? We are trying to negotiate for you to come home. You are dodging, you are giving us statements all the time.”

Then he asked Dr. Riek, who was the chief mediator, “OK, now I want to meet the elders of the Acholi community of Uganda.” And he named a few people from there, and Dr. Riek said, “We will bring them.” So we arranged to bring them. The next time I saw him, I was still mad at him because he was still not making progress.

I think it was the adrenaline in me that ran high, and I couldn’t stop myself. Because it’s too inhuman, what they were doing to people.

Are you worried about your country right now?

I’m worried that even though the peace agreement was signed, both parties still say they didn’t negotiate it, that they were forced to sign it—the president openly says so. [Opposition leader] Riek Machar does not speak much, but his people have said as much. You can see that the two still have not accepted the agreement. President Salva Kiir says, “Let’s implement it. It is a bad agreement, but let’s stop war.” But the people who are with the president are not acting that way.

Even if President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are willing to implement this agreement, we have South Sudanese who are not. The number of killings is still very high in Juba. When we left South Sudan a week ago, the economic situation was very bad. Even if we deny there’s hunger, there’s hunger; food is getting scarce. Because the hard currency is not there, food is not coming from the countries that were exporting to us, especially Uganda and Kenya. The South Sudanese pound has fallen badly. When I change pounds into Ugandan shillings, it is almost nothing.

The country is going down, but sometimes, something goes down for it to go up. It is reaching the point of no return, so it has to change. It has to go up. Any leader would not watch his people going down like this, I am sure. Even Riek has people in Juba; his advance team is in Juba, so they are feeding him information.

I’m worried if Riek does not come home and we start implementing the peace agreement without him… then there’s two countries. We had a meeting with Madame Angelina Teny We had a meeting with Madame Angelina Teny [on March 17], who is heading the security sector of the IO [Machar’s party], and she was asked, “Why haven’t you come home?” And she said, “Dr. Riek will come home.” They still have a few things that should be implemented, especially around the logistics of their security— because that’s needed prior for any ceasefire to really work. They also want somebody to sponsor transporting their people, setting up camps, drilling water, and finding structures where the security people are supposed to sleep. This was her appeal. There were a lot of hard questions put to her, and she told us why things are not moving the way everybody else is expecting. If the logistics around security are worked out, and we are hoping that should be done sooner than later, we can settle down and let the country begin to pick itself up.

I am sad about my country. On the day we lowered down the flag of Sudan and raised the flag of South Sudan, I don’t remember any South Sudanese who did not cry. If the tears did not come out rolling, the tears were rolling from inside, because it was the most joyful day of our lives. We women have worked so hard. Before independence, women said, “We have been given the opportunity to see if unity can be attractive for six years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.” But over those six years, things were as bad as if the war was still going on. So then we said, “OK, the best thing is to separate.” So women went out campaigning, and the number of women who voted was higher than the number of men.

But sadly enough, the leaders who took us into this joyful moment—they were having differences that they could not sit down and solve and say, “Now we’ve got our country. If we have differences, let’s put them behind us. First of all, let’s put this country right.” We started seeing cracks between the president and the vice president. Initially, it was underground. I was in the cabinet—I was busy trying to get my ministry moving. I knew there were difficulties, but I didn’t expect they would rift into war. Then the whole cabinet was relieved, and I thought we all accepted it, and calmly said, “OK, let other people take over and see how it goes.” But then we had these parties’ differences, and it translated into open quarrels.

The saddest part was that violence broke out, and everybody started accusing each other. The president was accusing Riek of trying to stage a coup. Riek denied staging a coup and said the president was trying to kill him. So then the war started spreading slowly, but within days it became a big war. I’m really very sad that we have this country, which is so beautiful, torn apart like this.

With UN Resolution 1325, there’s a big push for women to be part of decision-making, part of peace processes, part of the government, all of which is crucial to building a stable country. Where is South Sudan on this issue? What has been done, and how far is there to go?

I think that South Sudanese women started campaigning for inclusion even before Security Council Resolution 1325 was declared. We were already telling men that we must be included, since the start of the war. That’s when we created what we call the Katiba Banat, the Women’s Battalion. The Women’s Battalion was headed by a man, but was a battalion of women who would go into the field. Some of them were fighting with guns, but a lot of them brought the “soft fight”—they were treating the sick, nursing people. The Women’s Battalion was also going into the displaced person camps to make sure that the army didn’t go there to molest or rape or do anything against the women there.

From there, we said, “You must include women at all levels of decision-making.” For example, if a woman is there, and the men say, “This person is bad, let’s dismiss the person,” the woman will say, “But if you dismiss that person, he will start fighting. Why don’t you transfer the person from where he is doing harm to a less harmful position? That way he will still feel included, and you have avoided a conflict.” So a woman will always see a softer decision rather than a hard decision. As I always say, make women part of the decision-making.

Then when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement came, it was agreed that women would be given 25% of any position, especially in parliament and the executive branch. And when we came back, we insisted this be translated into the constitution. And it was put into the constitution. When the 2010 mid-term elections came, we said, “Make sure you translate this into the election laws.” So it was translated into election laws. During the elections, there was 25% seats reserved for women, where only women can compete for it from different parties. Women can also compete for the other seats—the party leads and the geographical seats— to increase their numbers, which also happened in 2010.

In the executive branch, sometimes the president would bring up a list of suggested names without satisfying the 25%, and the women in the parliament would throw it out and say, “No, president. You are the president, you are the head of this government. You agreed to this. You cannot be the very person who will also dishonor your own agreement.” And it happened twice; he corrected it, and the women are at the table.

But my personal issue is that women should not be given positions in the government like in the executive—in the low ministries. This should be in the sovereign ministries, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Defense, so that they can make hard decisions. Why not have a woman minister in the Ministry of Defense? If the army generals decide, “Let’s go to war,” then the woman can say, “I am the decision-maker here. We’re not going to war. Let’s find an alternative to this problem.”

So far, women are given the lesser positions. I read one day that the highest position held by a woman in South Sudan was me, as the Minister of Agriculture. That was the highest position, because agriculture is ranked high. Women are in the Ministry of Gender, the Ministry of Telecommunication, the Ministry of Housing—these are the soft ministries: we want women in hard decision-making agencies. But also, they are good enough in other ministries, if they can participate.

The only problem with men—particularly in South Sudan—is that decisions are not made at the table. Decisions are made under the table. Decisions are made at night. Decisions are made after working hours, where women don’t go. Even if they can influence decisions, it is difficult for them to do so when they don’t know, because a decision is made when they’re not there. Information is power. And husbands don’t share information with their wives, so we still have to fight that so that we can be at the real decision-making table.

During a panel discussion in March, you invited everyone in the audience to visit South Sudan. Can you tell me what you love about your country?

South Sudan is one of the most beautiful countries God has created. It has a very welcoming environment, climate. It has very friendly people. It has everything you can think of.

The only thing South Sudanese do not have is the power and the will to say “no” to war. This is the only thing. So we need to work towards that, so that you begin to say, “I built a country” rather than “I destroyed what I built.” Because you can destroy in five minutes what you build in 10 years.

So this, the power of saying “no” to an ethnic leader is something we still have to work on. We are very friendly people, and we are very original. There is everything to love about South Sudan.