South Sudan: The Rock of Nyal; Nyarek is standing strong for women’s rights

By Stella Madete, Oxfam in South Sudan

A vast swamp shoulders Nyal town, its outside channels broad and shallow. The inside canals are long and flow idly in their course, twisting in all directions, collecting into the enormous marshlands of Unity State; a state that has been badly affected by more than two years of conflict and perhaps the most at-risk region in the country. The ground is dry and dusty, bearing no life but the short thin specks of grass, yellowing under the relentless glare of the sun. A once small quiet town with ancient palm trees and scattered thatched houses, it is now a vibrant hub of activity. The town is filled with people in search of aid.

Recurring clashes in Mayendit, Leer and Koch counties in 2015 forced more than 80,000 people from their homes, many with nothing but their lives, to seek refuge on islands in Panyijar County. After months living in cramped conditions on the islands, eating water lilies and the occasional fish, and with no clean water or sanitation, they were forced to move to Nyal or face starvation. “We travel in canoes to the islands. We see the devastating conditions that people are forced to live in. We know how serious the problem is,” says Nyarek, a member of Oxfam’s protection team in Nyal. “Some are still hidden in the swamps, too afraid to come out. Those that braved the journey have no choice but to ask organisations like Oxfam for help. Those that were left behind, with no food, are hopeful that their family members will return with food.”

Each day brings new arrivals to Nyal, many settling with host families and seeking safety and access to the bare necessities. By making this journey, they join the 1.6 million people displaced within South Sudan by the ongoing conflict. Forced displacement, lack of humanitarian access and collapsed markets have created conditions that have left nearly a quarter of the population across South Sudan without enough food to eat. In Nyal, the food distribution scheduled to take place within weeks will bring a welcome, albeit short reprieve to this relentless cycle of displacement and hunger.

In such situations, there is high risk of the most vulnerable being excluded from the food distribution, and the rights of women and children being ignored. Nyarek, a familiar face to many, is walking up and down the long lines of people, mostly women, sitting beneath the scorching sun waiting their turn to register for food. In quick movements she talks to people, identifies their needs, and acts swiftly to address them. She is referring the sick to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) desk for medical consultation, escorting the elderly to the front and authoritatively calming the crowd, reassuring the restless that their turn will soon come. Nyarek is the rock people turn to if they feel something is standing between them and their rights.

“Everyone has been affected by the conflict. Women and children ran to safety, but are they really safe? They are hungry, tired and exposed, and no one is looking out for them,” says Nyarek. “They have no one to protect them. That’s where we come in. Our protection is not like the protection that the military is supposed to give you. We don’t use weapons. Our power is in our voice.” Nyarek identifies closely with the women in Nyal because she knows exactly what it feels like to be displaced. Before the conflict started, she lived and worked in Juba. However, the violence that erupted in December 2013 forced her to relocate to the United Nations displacement camp, leaving all she had worked for behind and carrying only her broken dreams.

“It’s not easy to rely on other people when you are used to taking care of yourself,” she says. “You can be safe, but you are frustrated, angry, and not in control. Many of your rights are not respected, but you have no power to change it. I know what it’s like, so I treat people the way I expect to be treated — with respect. That’s how I deal with issues.” For Nyarek, a journey down Nyal’s main road takes twice the amount of time because of how often she is stopped by a member of the community with greetings, questions and news. Her commitment to serve is evidenced by the patient manner in which she responds to each request. “It is a privilege to help. I feel that I am doing something positive, adding to someone’s life, where so much has already been taken,” she says. “Helping people gives me energy, because in this country, you need a lot of energy to remember your dreams and keep working for a better future.”

Oxfam’s protection work aims to improve the safety of civilians threatened with violence, coercion, and deliberate deprivation. The safety of children, youth and women is a priority for us and goes hand in hand with delivering other essentials like food, water and hygiene.

Oxfam is working with communities in southern Unity to improve access to water and sanitation for a growing population. We have also distributed mosquito nets to families to help reduce malaria infection and hygiene kits to women on the islands. Our protection team is also working to ensure that the rights of the vulnerable, especially women and children, are observed and their needs are met.

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