SOUTH Sudanese activist Rita Lopidia was just a child when shells started falling in her hometown of Juba, forcing her and her family to flee the fighting in the 1990s.
Her experience with years of civil war and displacement and her campaign for women’s participation in peace negotiations earned her the inaugural Women Building Peace Award on Tuesday from the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
The award, the first of its kind bestowed by the USIP, recognises the crucial role women play in preventing conflict and forging peace and reconciliation in war-torn countries.
USIP is a non-partisan federal institution set up by the U.S. Congress in 1984 that works to prevent conflict abroad.
Despite receiving death threats for her work, Lopidia played a major role in trying to get the voices of women, particularly displaced women, heard in the forging of South Sudan’s 2018 peace agreement.
“The work we do … is to ensure that women have the space to contribute in decision making, and women have the opportunity to contribute in building this nation into a country that is stable and peaceful,” said Lopidia at an online award ceremony hosted by the USIP.
South Sudan became Africa’s newest state in 2011 following an independence referendum, when voters from Sudan’s oil-producing south chose to split from its northern neighbor Sudan.
Civil war broke out, and South Sudan still is reeling from its impact. The five-year conflict claimed about 400,000 lives, triggered a famine and displaced millions of people.
“After South Sudan got its independence, there was hope that things were going to change for the women in this country,” said Lopidia, who received $10,000 in prize money.
“But they didn’t have the opportunity,” she said. “Even if there is peace, and there is no proper national plan to move women of South Sudan from the suffering into development, we will not benefit from peace.”
Key challenges facing women are a lack of maternal health care and access to loans to improve their livelihoods, she said.
Lopidia heads and co-founded the Eve Organization for Women Development in South Sudan that supports victims of sexual violence, provides job skills and leadership training and partners on issues of gender equality with male community leaders.
“Men and women experience conflict differently, so in order to have a complete and comprehensive resolution of conflict it is important that women are brought to the table, and that women are also included in terms of power sharing,” said Lopidia.
Lopidia was chosen from among 10 finalists from countries that have experienced conflict including Colombia, Rwanda and Uganda.
According to the United Nations, when women are included in a peace process, the agreement is 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.
Yet women account for fewer than 3% of chief mediators in peace talks, research shows.
“Ms. Lopidia’s achievements reinforce what data have long shown: to build a more peaceful world, give women a seat at the table,” said Marcia Carlucci, co-chair of the Women Building Peace Council, which helped to select the award recipient.
The USIP has said the new prize aims to highlight the role of women not just when rebuilding countries after conflict but during disruptions such as the coronavirus pandemic, in which women make up a majority of frontline healthcare workers, teachers and caregivers.
“In today’s complicated, turbulent world, women like Ms. Lopidia remind us what’s possible,” said Megan Beyer, co-chair of the Women Building Peace Council. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.