2020 Women Building Peace Award Recipient: Rita Lopidia
Amid South Sudan’s brutal warfare, she leads women in seizing a peacemaking role.
Rita Lopidia’s lifelong quest to bring peace to her homeland germinated at age seven. Amid Sudan’s 1980s civil war, “our mother made us children walk before dawn each day to the Nile” riverbank in her hometown of Juba, she recalls. It was the safest place to stay as the day’s artillery shells slammed into the city. Long before Rita understood anything else of war, she says, she learned its costs, wondering who had been killed with each concussive blast. Three decades after losing her father and her home during that war, Rita leads South Sudanese women in a campaign to halt their country’s continued bloodshed.
In a young country brutalized by war for most of Rita’s life, South Sudan’s women and girls are among those who have suffered the most. Yet a generation of women activists has gradually forced patriarchal leaders and factional warlords to begin opening space for women in shaping the governance over which men with guns have been fighting. Rita helps lead a coalition of more than 50 women’s civic groups that has won a place in the nation’s peace negotiations, and in strengthening what for years has been ineffective implementation of successive peace accords.
“It is a lack of political will that has prevented peace agreements from working in South Sudan,” Rita said in an interview. Part of a solution “is to have more women in decision-making positions because they will think about what is good for the wider community.”
A Father’s Sacrifice, A Mother’s Heroism
Rita’s parents were schoolteachers. In 1990, southern rebels were fighting the war that ultimately would divide Sudan and create an independent state in the south. “The Sudanese government harassed my father because they suspected he supported the rebels” in the mainly Christian south of a country that was ruled from the Muslim, ethnically Arab north, Rita said. “My dad had an arrangement for the family to leave the country through Khartoum,” the capital, she said.
Amid a patriarchal society that often treats women and girls as commodities, her father wanted Rita’s older sister to complete her primary school exams so she could continue her education. So he sent the rest of the family north to relative safety while staying in Juba with his daughter long enough to finish classes. Within days, “my mother received a message that he had passed away … from a heart attack,” Rita said.
Her mother raced to reunite the remaining family and then struggled for years to raise her four children while uprooted from home by war, Rita said. She taught English in a Khartoum primary school to ensure that her two daughters and two sons all received university educations. Rita earned a bachelor’s degree studying applied science, dreaming of returning someday to southern Sudan to help it launch a food processing industry “because we are a land with wonderful fruits and agricultural produce,” she said.
Even having graduated, “it was not easy for South Sudanese like us to get jobs in Khartoum” where they were seen as “a Christian, African minority” amid a Muslim, Arab-dominated society, Rita said. A group of young women graduates from the south, all facing unemployment and discrimination, began meeting to discuss their common plight and the problems of their people. “We started to brainstorm,” she said. “There were no jobs for us, but we were educated and so we had something we could offer to our community.”
Women Building Peace
The small group co-founded a voluntary association, the EVE Organization for Women Development, focused on South Sudanese women and girls. Just then, in 2005, Sudan’s government and the southern rebels announced a peace agreement, giving the south a path toward independence. Rita found jobs with international relief organizations working to help Sudan resolve its wars, in the south and in the region of Darfur. In 2008, both she and the EVE Organization would return to Juba to educate and organize women and girls for citizenship in a new, independent state.
As Rita and her colleagues worked amid farming and herding villages of their homeland along the upper Nile, their embryonic campaign was part of a global evolution. A few years earlier, Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee and thousands of other women had launched a crusade to halt the destruction of their country by patriarchal warlords battling for power. Gbowee would share the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2000, the United Nations Security Council would formally recognize the global need to include women in building peace worldwide, enshrining it in the council’s Resolution 1325.
Two decades later, basic data show that implementation of that objective in formal peace processes remains slow. Of 504 peace accords completed by 2015, only 27 percent even mentioned women. A U.N. review of 14 peace processes from 2000 to 2010 found that only 8 percent of negotiators and 3 percent of signatories were women.
But at the world’s grass roots, civil society movements and leaders continue to force the change. Networks of women mediate in local conflicts in Colombia, and women leaders have led peacemaking in the Saharan cities of Sebha and Ubari, amid Libya’s civil war. In Afghanistan, women have broken through strictures of tradition to make themselves part of a grassroots peace movement and are pushing for a greater role in a peace process with the Taliban.
While the international community supports many of these local campaigns, a persistent barrier is the obscurity in which women must work in many countries—an obscurity often enforced by patriarchal cultural norms. Highlighting this hidden heroism is why the U.S Institute of Peace established its Women Building Peace award. In its initial year, the award’s 150 nominees and its 10 finalists included human rights defenders, teachers and organizers from across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Violence Against Women and Peacebuilders
Worldwide, the women who work for peace in the face of contending armed factions face violent attack for that audacity. This has included many of the USIP award’s nominees. The atrocities of war against women, and the threats against those who speak out, happen nowhere more brutally than in the bloodshed of South Sudan during its nine years of independence.
South Sudan’s warfare includes small but deadly conflicts, often over land or local resources, and a national power struggle among armed factions—notably those of President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice President Riek Machar. The violence has uprooted more than 4 million of South Sudan’s 11 million people. Warring groups on all sides commit atrocities and use the rape of women as a weapon. To review the evidence is numbing: routine accounts of South Sudanese army soldiers and men of other armed groups committing torture, rape, assault and sexual enslavement against thousands of women and girls, from pre-school aged children to the elderly. The reports come from eyewitnesses, international aid workers, news media, the United Nations, the African Union, and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. In 2020, the organization Plan International found that the COVID pandemic has only “exacerbated gender inequalities,” increasing women and girls’ vulnerability to rape and other attacks.
After Rita began working fulltime to lead the EVE Organization, death threats forced her to leave Juba for a period of exile in Uganda. She carried her organizing work with her, building women’s education and networking for peace among nearly 900,000 South Sudanese refugees there. “I see myself as vulnerable, I cry, but what else can I do?” Rita asked in a 2016 interview. “Working for peace, these are some of the risks that activists—not only me, not only EVE Organization, but many others out there—take.”
South Sudanese Women’s Successes
The U.S career diplomat and late USIP expert on the region, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, highlighted the barriers facing women activists in a 2015 book, writing that the countries’ patriarchal power structures “have largely shut out” women, “with most of civil society,” from peace processes that were really about power struggle. Yet even as Lyman wrote, Rita and her colleagues were beginning to erode those obstacles. They documented violence against women and organized them to speak out. They built volunteer and training programs for young women leaders. Eventually, they forged a South Sudan Women’s Coalition, gathering more than 50 organizations representing tens of thousands of women across the country and in exile as refugees.
Following the collapse of peace accords signed in 2015 and 2016, the women’s coalition launched a steady, energetic campaign that forced a women’s presence in renewed peace negotiations. In a 2018 peace agreement, they won unprecedented roles, including a provision that women should hold 35 percent of the positions in a transitional government, including a vice-presidential post. The women’s movement still is struggling to get all of those provisions implemented. The accord also promises recognition and compensation for women who have survived wartime sexual violence. “We need to maintain the pressure to achieve the advances that have been promised, and to build the political will among those fighting to achieve a real peace,” Rita said.
What, and who, has inspired Rita in a struggle that she now has pursued for decades? She pauses at the question—and then names two other women. “I have been motivated by my mom, who lost my dad when she was very young and then had to then bring up four children by herself as a displaced woman in a country with all its troubles.”
And, she recalls, when a neighbor in their Khartoum exile community was able to afford a television and a satellite dish, she found herself inspired by a woman from far beyond her own community. “I became a big fan of Oprah,” she said. “Her program came on at five o’clock, and I watched a lot of her shows. Seeing her and the women she showed us, it gave me the courage that, if other women can do so much in other places, that we also could do a lot.”
Still, in what is now her lifelong commitment, Rita says, she finds her deepest well of emotional fuel from within. “More than any particular woman, what really motivates me has been the situation that we all are living in, the struggle of women in the face of violence that we all share.” At the bottom of that well, she says, is still the pain and outrage of that seven-year-old girl listening at the Nile riverbank to the concussion of artillery shells falling into her city.