Guest speakers Riya William and Tag Elkhazin just arrived to the history lounge, 433 Paterson Hall, at Carleton University. People are slowly starting to show up.
Blair Rutherford, Director of the Institute of African Studies, is introducing the lecture. Rutherford just welcomed Ashley Armstrong, coordinator of the Sister to Sister mentorship program, is talking about the Nobel Peace Initiative. She is speaking about young women activists that are promoting women's rights at Carleton University.
Tag Elkhazin just began his speech, accompanied by a powerpoint presentation. Most of the seats in the room are filled at this point.
"We'll talk a little bit about resilience," said Elkhazin. The peace and stabilization goals of South Sudan include legitimate politics, security, justice, economic foundations, and revenue and services.
"The resilience enables the country to deal with catastrophes," Elkhazin. South Sudan had a very large army, 1 soldier for every 56 civilians. He briefly mentions America:
"I always say that Americans are good at opening doors but they are not good at walking through them"
"I believe that the fight of South Sudan is too messy for Canada. The implementation capacity of South Sudan is poor. My advice is we need a symposium of a couple of days, where we have a roundtable discussion. So we can brainstorm, go deeper, go under the surface and come up with strategies," said Elkhazin.
Elkhazin is now done his speech and the next speaker, Riya William has began her speech. She is 24 years old, a former refugee of Uganda and native of South Sudan. William said she was nervous to speak today, but "In the name of womanhood, [she] will speak."
"We act as catalysts to promote democracy, human rights, women's rights, equality, and justice. What I do is try to ask traumatized people to forget about the war and choose peace, which is really hard," William said. She is president of Play for Peace in South Sudan, an initiative that brings people together through plays and the arts. "Let's put down our guns, and choose peace," she said.
South Sudan is currently the poorest country in the world, with more than half of its population living under the poverty line. The fertility rate is 4.9 as compared to Canada which is 1.6. "As a South Sudanese woman, I have no rights to tell my husband "I want 2 children". If he wants 10, I have ten. Otherwise he will continue marrying other women," said William.
Only 16% of women in South Sudanese are educated. "How are we expected to see change if we are not educated?" said William. The issues women in South Sudan face are not so different that the rest of the women in the world face, but the magnitude matters. "I have a friend of mine, who at 11 years old was forced to get married by her parents to get rich. She refused, and decided to go to school and she is now a doctor." The main problem is education equality. South Sudan has the worst education equality problem in the world. This is caused by lack of funding.
William talks about the many inconveniences and impracticalities women face day to day. "We have no toilets specifically for girls. If you want to go to the toilet, clean up, go to a bush," she said.
With the numerous responsibilities girls and women have, such as cooking and cleaning and tending to the family, they have no time for school. She said if she did not prepare food for her family, she would get beaten. "So why not stay home and cook and not get beaten?" she said.
The other challenge that girls and women in South Sudan face is forced marriages. The dowry associated with marriage can be a very good incentive for parents to marry off their daughters. As soon as a girl reaches menstruation, the family celebrates. "Instead of saying what school she will go to, they ask which man she will marry," she said. Often, the men are much older (as much as 50 years older).
Violence is also a large problem. South Sudan is the worst place for a girl to grow up. The majority of women in South Sudan face gender-based violence. They are raped, beaten, forced into marriages. What you read about in the news is only a fraction of what is actually happening on the ground. "We don't have hospitals where women can be treated," William said. "We are not given the opportunity to make decisions in our country. I believe that violence is the most significant problem we face."
South Sudan will not develop economically because women are not included. These views are deeply imbedded in cultural practices, domestic violence is accepted as normal. "Because we look at it as normal, we ignore this issue. Yet they are really impactful issues that impact the future of South Sudan," said William.
"I call upon the government of Canada to work closely with the government of South Sudan. These peace agreements are just papers that they are going to throw away, they are not going to implement peace. Try working with women in South Sudan directly. For the future development needs of South Sudan, we should prioritize education, mainly for girls. As the saying goes, educate a girl and you will educate a nation"
It is now time for questions and discussion. A retired diplomat asks if there are any recommendations of ways the Government of Canada can help South Sudan. Elkhazin said "Canada has a good history with that part of the world. We are not in the habit of raising our flag like other people do. I think there is no political will within the government to take on a relatively complex problem."
"Are there examples of south mobilized grassroots women organizations that are active in South Sudan?" asks an audience member.
"We have so many women that formed and founded organizations in South Sudan. One very strong organization is called South Sudan Women Empowerment Association, who was formed by a single mother. But we cannot be strong in South Sudan to do things like marching on the streets., because women who talk about their problems are stigmatized and laughed at. We also don't have resources, we don't have money to run these organizations."
An audience member asks about Canada's role in the struggle of South Sudan. Another audience member, native of South Sudan, addressed Riya directly to talk about the problem of child marriage. He said, "The most important thing we should ask ourselves is what led to this crisis?"
Question time is becoming more of a discussion. An audience member has been talking for a few minutes now about nationalism, about the problem of governance, and gender inequality. Other audience members are nodding and adding their own comments.
The guest speakers are making their closing remarks. "I want to deeply thank Tag and Riya for coming and speaking," said Rutherford.