By Leslie Pitterson
Published September 23, 2010
Though only two-percent of southern Sudan’s women aged 14-17 years attend secondary school, they represent a crucial pillar to the rebuilding of the nation and must be provided with economic opportunity, according to the Women Refugee Commission’s (WRC).
Jenny Perlman, WRC’s Senior Programme Officer on Children and Youth, says the findings of a study conducted by WRC revealed that the sectors that offered key opportunities were agriculture and the hospitality industry.
While young women are making headway in male-dominated careers, one of the biggest surprises in the report is a predominantly female luxury: hairdressing.
“WRC has seen this sector rise up post-conflict in other areas and there’s just no market for it. So to see it flourishing was something,” says Perlman.
Among southern Sudan’s young women, hairdressing has become a way to earn money while making other women look their best. And while it may seem purely aesthetical, hairdressing is a lucrative service. Prices for services can cost up to 200 Sudanese Pounds (about US$84).
For most women though, the most practical career path remains agriculture. Over 70 percent of southern Sudan’s farmers are female, making women the primary providers of the region’s food basket. This is the reason why humanitarian organisations like Women for Women are implementing vocational skill-based programmes for women growing produce from the land. The group’s large scale farming project in Lake State was launched in 2008 and works with more than 3,000 women teaching them the skills they need to earn income.
Lyric Thompson, Women for Women’s Policy Analyst, says the initial reactions from males in the community has changed from hesitation to enthusiasm as the programme has brought in sustenance and revenue.
“It’s been interesting to hear how the reactions to our staff change as the time goes on,” says Thompson. “The first thing we usually hear is, Why women for women? Why women? Why not men?”
However, the reception has become much warmer as the communities where Women for Women are partnering with local women begin to see a profit.
“We can see a transition from having that initial conversation and not being able to make much headway, to then having the first produce and harvest and then hearing, “Bring ten more Women for Women!” Thompson says. “For these women who have had to import their food in order to eat, being able to farm is like growing money from the ground.”
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As part of their farming programme in Lake State, Women for Women offers skill-based training, as well as classes on health and rights awareness. The goal is to allow women to be to become not only earners but empowered as well.
“For many of these women, being in a classroom with other women can foster a psycho-social benefit. It stimulates what many women who have survived war do not have which is a safety net,” says Thompson.
Though their childhoods have been mired in violence, in a few short months, southern Sudan’s young women may see their country gain its independence. But as a peaceful future for the region remains uncertain, so does the futures of its young women.
No one can ensure that the peace will not fall apart and plunge the country back into the depths of war. But for many of the young women living in the midst of this instability, learning the skills needed to work may provide them with one sure thing.