It has been just over two and a half years since clashes between the northern Sudan Armed Forces and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army burned Abyei town to the ground.
“At first, it seemed impossible,” recalls Nyankiir Chol, headmistress of the local primary school and Project Manager for Padang Women’s Association (PWA), an Abyei-based civil society organization partnering with Mercy Corps through the USAID-funded Localizing Institutional Capacity in Sudan (LINCS) program. During the crisis, the organization’s office was burned down and all of its equipment — including sewing machines, fabric and office supplies — was taken or destroyed. Along with tens of thousands of Abyei residents, all of the members had fled to the nearby town of Agok with their families.
“We met with Mercy Corps LINCS staff in the [LINCS-supported] Agok Civil Society Resource Center to discuss how to get the projects going again,” Nyankiir recalls. Some suggested re-starting in Agok, but Nyankiir was determined to resume the organization’s activities — which focus on vocational training for women — in Abyei town. With support from Mercy Corps through the LINCS program, PWA returned to Abyei, built a new office structure and designed a new project.
Since then, PWA has been helping to rebuild the Abyei community by improving the economic situation of women and their families.
Decades of civil war coupled with societal pressures favoring early marriage denied many women in Abyei access to education, limiting their opportunities to generate income. PWA is helping overcome this challenge through training in tailoring and handicrafts, with a sub-grant from the LINCS program. “With vocational training, we are empowering women to become self-reliant and contribute to community development in Abyei,” says Nyankiir.
Women visit PWA’s office, a small thatched-roof tukul filled with piles of embroidered fabric and equipped with several sewing machines purchased from Khartoum, to receive training in tailoring and handicrafts and to work on their projects. The finished products — including bed sheets, blankets and school uniforms for children — are sold by PWA at its office and at the local market. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each item is retained by PWA to support the program, while the remainder is kept by the woman who made it.
This means of income generation is significantly improving the status of women in Abyei community. “Even within the family,” explains Achai Alei, one of PWA’s beneficiaries, as she sits floor in the PWA office working on an embroidery project, “we are gaining more respect. Husbands come home and see what the women have created and the money they have earned and recognize their contribution.”
PWA staff have also become role models for other women in the community, demonstrating the potential for women to contribute not just to the family, but to development on the state and national levels. LINCS-supported networking opportunities, including visits with civil society organizations in other regions of the country and dialogues with local government, have raised PWA’s profile.
To date, the women of PWA have been invited to attend workshops and conferences all over the country. Just last month, Nyankiir attended a development workshop in Damazine, Blue Nile state, alongside civil society leaders from Sudan’s transitional areas: Abyei, Blue Nile state and Southern Kordofan state.
In addition to these vital networking activities, training from LINCS has helped PWA access funding from a variety of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and agencies. The LINCS team in Abyei, made up of senior Sudanese professionals, supports PWA through ongoing mentoring and training in project management, organizational development and donor relations.
“Before, we didn’t have good relationships with other organizations,” says Nyankiir. “Now, if our project stops, it will be our fault, not the fault of LINCS, because LINCS has built our capacity to find other sources of support.”
In the run-up to the January 2011 referenda, the future of southern Sudan — and of the Abyei region in particular — remains uncertain. But the commitment of Nyankiir and PWA to women in Abyei and the community at large is a long term one. PWA is currently looking for the resources to build a new office and training hall — this time out of concrete.