This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women”. In observance, this week USAID is profiling brave individuals and dynamic programs focused on addressing gender-based violence around the world.
War defined childhood for a generation of girls born during Sudan’s civil conflict, which lasted from 1983 to 2005.
For Athieng Riak Jok, who was born in 1984, the disruption caused by war also protected her from being married off at an early age. Jok was born into a cattle-owning community that values women as a source of income in the form of cattle. In order to marry, men traditionally give a woman’s family cattle as a dowry.
For Jok, war disrupted that practice. “I grew up on the run,” Jok says.
She recognized early that her community did not value educating girls, and her own family sent only boys to school. “This experience has shaped my view. I became aware of social injustice at an early age and grew up with increased curiosity. Although I did not start formal schooling until after the age of 11,” Jok says. ” I was using every available opportunity to learn, including imitating my brother who was in school and did homework.”
Jok eventually graduated high school while living in a refugee camp in Kenya, won a scholarship in 2007 and graduated from a Canadian university in 2011. Last year, she returned to South Sudan, which gained its independence while she was in Canada. Jok now works as a community gender technical advisor in Jonglei state through USAID-supported Jonglei Food Security Program (JFSP). Launched in 2011, the program aims to alleviate hunger among 150,000 households in Jonglei state.
Jok’s major task has been to mobilize women in the community to understand their role in society to achieve sustainable development. She encourages them to attend community meetings and voice their opinions. “Any developmental program that will thrive must recognize the contributions of both women and men in order to succeed,” she said. Jok and other women working for JFSP work hard to provide a positive role model in the community, sending a strong message about the benefits of educating girls.
Asked about the meaning of International Women’s Day, Jok said, “This is a day to reflect on achievements of women and on the victims of gender-based injustices. It is also a day to appreciate the contributions made by women and men who have realized the need for gender equality, and have sacrificed their time and resources to advocate for gender equity.”