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While international media attention mainly focuses on the brutal civil war in South Sudan, smaller “wars” are being waged across the country that also warrant attention and speak to the need for increased unarmed civilian protection. Nonviolent Peaceforce works in several South Sudanese communities to address local conflicts that have resulted in lives lost and increased violence against women. The inter-communal violence has worsened during the civil war because there is greater access to weapons, reduced resources and less attention to community development. Together, this has resulted in the militarization of localized conflicts.

Amongst the Dinka Agaar – as with many other communities in South Sudan – wealth is measured in cattle. The keeping and protection of cattle is a central concern and traditionally, this responsibility falls to boys/men known as ‘gelweng’. From a young age, families send their sons to live unaccompanied in remote cattle camps which can be home to thousands of cows. At present, one of the largest cattle camps in Western Lakes State – Marialbek – reportedly has more than 100,000 cows. These cows belong to separate families but are all kept together.

The conditions in the remote cattle camps are extremely difficult with little access to basic services, food, and shelter; with the proliferation of guns since the beginning of the civil war, life in these cattle camps is more dangerous. As opposed to fighting with sticks, the gelweng are picking up guns when fighting breaks out between opposing clans. While fighting has decreased in frequency this past year, it continues to have a very destructive impact on a community. A recent outbreak in April claimed the lives of 70 people. Conflict has also been exacerbated by the availability of locally brewed alcohol and the rise of alcohol abuse by the gelweng. Within Dinka Agaar communities, the gelweng have become more aggressive and harder to control by community elders and believed to be responsible for committing acts of violence against women.

The abundance of weapons, their remote locations and the unpredictability of the gelweng make cattle camps a hostile environment for organizations like Nonviolent Peaceforce. In spite of this, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s (NP) Rumbek team has maintained a presence for many years negotiating access and traveling to cattle camps to engage with the gelweng and their leaders as a means of protecting the broader community and promoting nonviolent solutions to resolve conflict. The NP Rumbek team has conducted many outreach activities making the gelweng aware of peace agreements negotiated between the elders and advocating for peace between communities.

In the coming months, the NP Rumbek team will support Women's Peacekeeping Teams to take the lead in addressing issues of gender-based violence. Through training provided by Nonviolent Peaceforce, the Women's Peacekeeping Teams will provide education to the gelweng about sexual violence and the rights of women. Engaging with this powerful, yet marginalized, armed group is essential to addressing conflict in the Greater Lakes area; and working with the Women's Peacekeeping Team ensures long-term sustainability in conflict and gender-based violence prevention.

The work in the cattle camps is only one part of a wider effort, funded by the Dutch government, to promote women's participation in peacebuilding and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention. This project will include the NP team building the capacity of administers of justice and elders to enhance access to remedies for GBV survivors, and conducting post-incident workshops in communities to spread awareness of the referral pathway available for survivors and to address the barriers to reporting and accessing medical services. Nonviolent Peaceforce will also be training the Women's Peacekeeping Teams to provide basic psychosocial support for survivors, and to engage with men and boys in their communities to question harmful gender norms and replace them with redefined equitable ones.

By Tania Marcello, Women's Peace and Protection Officer for Nonviolent Peaceforce in South Sudan

In the photo: Members of the NP team at cattle camp in Rumbek East (October 2015)