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As They Fight Famine, South Sudan’s Women Won’t Wait for Handouts

South Sudan’s deadly civil war and bouts of devastating droughts have left millions of people dependent on food aid. But many of the country’s women farmers are learning new skills to keep their families fed.

Written by Sam Mednick Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
S.sudan famine 1
These women outside the town of Mingkaman, South Sudan are part of an agricultural group that uses resources provided by a humanitarian organization to support each other in cultivating crops and staving off famine.Sam Mednick

During her 14-hour daily walks through the woods, one question churns in Prescila Nuong’s mind. What will it take to pull her family out of poverty?

“There is so much hunger now in the camp,” says the weathered 40-year-old mother of eight.

Nuong lives in the Warabiei cattle camp, one of the many roving cow-herding communities on the outskirts of South Sudan’s Rumbek town. Every day, Nuong walks seven hours each way to a market in Rumbek, over pebble roads, across mud-soaked fields and through the brush, where she’s often attacked and robbed, to sell her milk.

“I want to sacrifice myself to provide for my family,” she says.

Four years into South Sudan’s civil war, the world’s youngest nation continues to spiral deeper into despair. The conflict has left more than an estimated 50,000 people dead and sparked accusations of human rights abuses by government and opposition forces. At the same time, 6 million people are in need of food aid, and 1.7 million are on the brink of famine. The United Nations has requested almost $690 million for food and nutrition, but only 73 percent of it has been funded so far.

With men in South Sudan either fighting or hiding, women have become their families’ sole breadwinners. And many of them, like Nuong, have decided they don’t want to rely on handouts. Instead, they’re learning new skills, starting businesses and risking their lives to find sustainable ways to feed their families.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Nuong and her husband used to cultivate crops for a living, but three years ago the fighting made it too dangerous for them to tend their fields. Worried that her family would have nothing to eat and no money for school, Nuong began selling 10 pint- (5 liter-) jugs of milk at Rumbek’s local market, bringing home around 500 South Sudanese pounds (roughly $3) every day.

But in May, Nuong found a way to get more for her milk – by selling it to Rumbek’s first-ever milk bar. Spearheaded by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to support milk producers in the region and help the community develop sustainable livelihoods, the milk bar is run by a team of 10 women who have been trained how to process clean, safe milk. The bar provides them access to equipment they use to pasteurize the milk, which allows them to ask a higher price.

The aim is to “break the cycle of poverty,” says Louis Bagare, a project manager with FAO.

The 10 women running the milk bar in Rumbek make enough selling their pasteurized milk to feed their families and send their children to school. (Mariah Quesada)

With the money they earn, the women can feed their families and use any surplus for medicine and school fees. “If women earn more money, more children will go to school,” says Bagare.

Coming out from behind the counter inside the shop, bar manager Preskila Deng, 31, serves two glasses of milk to her waiting customers. “This is the first time I’ve done this,” she smiles.

Deng used to sell tea in Rumbek’s market, but gave it up because she wanted to learn how to produce milk that was safe for her family to drink. The bar can bring in a profit of around 6,000 South Sudanese pounds ($37) a day, says Deng. She uses her cut to support her family and save for her children’s future.

From Fields to Fish

Across the Nile, not far from Rumbek, in the relatively peaceful town of Mingkaman, Amel Ayuen, 30, prepares her canoe for the evening. “If I don’t get to the market first thing in the morning I can’t sell anything,” she says. To make sure she gets there before the other fish merchants, the young mother spends the nights in her canoe, rocking to sleep as she floats on the water.

“It’s better to sleep in my canoe than to rely on food aid,” she says. “I want to be independent.”

For years, Ayuen would frequent Mingkaman’s market as a paying customer, buying fish and grains to feed her five children. She and her husband used to survive by farming, but their livelihood was destroyed by drought.

Today Ayuen is one of 20 people, including six women, who make up the Ahou Fishing Group, a project supported by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which focuses on rebuilding peoples’ lives through skills training.

Using equipment and bait provided by Catholic Relief Services, the Ahou Fishing Group – which includes six women – can catch enough fish to eat and sell. (Sam Mednick)

Around 80 percent of South Sudan’s population relies directly on agriculture or livestock to survive. But the combination of civil war and bouts of drought has left many farmers unable to grow enough food or keep their cattle alive, and the government lacks the capacity to support them. So aid organizations are stepping in to provide people with resources in the hopes of fostering self-reliance and resilience, especially among women.

“We’re targeting sustainability,” says Achiek Daniel, a project officer with CRS. “Because there will be a time when the agencies won’t be here.”

As part of a three-year development program, CRS supplies the group with nets, hooks and bait. They also teach them about managing money and growing a business through micro-finance programs.

Daniel says it took some time for the communities to warm to the idea of training. “Originally there was resistance when we came,” he says. At first, they wanted “everything for free.” But two years into the project, attitudes have changed. The challenge now, says Daniel, is getting the women to believe in themselves.

“When women are around men, they undermine themselves,” says David William, another CRS field officer. “[But] women are stronger and they’re the decision-makers.”

An Injection of Aid

Forty minutes outside the capital of Juba, in the town of Rajaf, Josephine Lurit smiles as she sits atop her tractor.

The outspoken mother of eight has been farming her land for 45 years. But when fighting broke out in Juba last July, Lurit was forced to stop cultivating.

“I was scared,” she says. “Children were being abducted, and people were being killed.”

When the fighting forced Josephine Lurit to stop farming, she joined a project launched by the FAO that gave her access to the tools and training, and motivated her to keep her farm running, despite the dangers. (Mariah Quesada)

Due to the conflict, access to food and commodities around the country has been greatly restricted. Food prices have inflated, making it hard for people, especially poorer families, to buy what they need to plant and harvest their crops.

To combat the problem, the FAO’s Urban Livelihood Project gives people vegetable seeds and an assortment of tools and training – an initial injection of aid that should evolve into a regular, sustainable source of food and money.

“Emergency agricultural support is an extremely cost-effective form of humanitarian aid,” says James Swokiri of FAO. A single vegetable kit, for example, costs about $65 per family and can provide about 1 ton of fresh food.

The hope is that, once the economic situation improves, the humanitarians can leave. But that can’t happen until the fighting stops. “Without peace, there is no food security,” says Swokiri.

When the conflict reached Juba, Lurit was forced to stay home, for fear of her life. But after a few months, she says she could no longer stay idle. In October 2016, with support from one of the women’s groups taking part in the Urban Livelihood Project, she returned to the fields.

“I’m ready to be killed to go farming,” she says. “I’m doing this to chase away the famine.”

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