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Fellows in Focus

paleki ayang, south sudan

For Paleki Ayang, a South Sudanese women’s rights advocate, the call to aid women seemed like a natural step after a childhood spent watching her mother aid local women sell their hand-made crafts and jewelry. Ayang saw the benefit her mother was providing to women- both in terms of income and a way to celebrate and preserve their culture, and was inspired to also aid in empowering her fellow women.

Because she witnessed the mistreatment of women continuously throughout her life, Ayang eventually decided to commit herself to the goal of ensuring better conditions for the women of South Sudan. She began her career as a lawyer but soon became frustrated upon realizing that, though she had the passion for aiding disadvantaged groups, she still needed to learn certain skills in order to become the most effective advocate and aid she could be. After working for the South Sudanese judiciary, Ayang left her position to begin working with the South Sudan Women Empowerment Network, a national indigenous network that promotes human rights, specifically, the empowerment of women. She credits SSWEN for being an environment that allowed her to grow her managerial skills and strengthen her (already powerful) leadership abilities. Ayang currently serves as the organization’s Executive Director.

The SSWEN aims to eradicate violence against women through education and advocacy efforts. SSWEN provides workshops for groups of women as well as other community stakeholders to become more aware of the negative repercussions of violence against women as well as the already-existing legal mechanisms that can aid in stopping the violence. What bothers Ayang most about the sexual climate of South Sudan is the degree to which sexual violence is either normalized or passively accepted. She believes that through these workshops, during which community leaders are given time to brainstorm real on-the-ground strategies for policing and combatting sexual violence, change will happen incrementally.

On top of advocacy and education outreach, Ayang believes that the radio can be a powerful tool for changing the perspectives of youth and uniting South Sudan around culturally divisive issues. She currently serves as the Gender Advisor to the United States Institute for Peace, Peace Radio For Youth Program in South Sudan. In this role, she reviews scripts to ensure that the gender messaging is productive and will quell harmful stereotyping.

Though she has already accomplished a great deal, Ayang is constantly seeking new opportunities to grow, which is what brought her to the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program. She appreciates being surrounded by peers who are tackling similar policy issues in their home countries, while also learning from policy professors tackling unique issues within the United States. She hopes to take the valuable lessons she is learning from this summer to continue to advance her work in South Sudan.

When asked what keeps her motivated in such a difficult line of work, Ayang smiled and told a story. During one of SSWEN’s workshops, a woman chief who was illiterate thanked the organization for teaching her about the constitutional article that guarantees equal treatment and protection of women through the law. “To see a woman, who was illiterate—-she couldn’t even fill out an evaluation form—- look at me and say “I now know that I have rights”—that is what keeps me going,” Ayang said.

-Written by Yvette Borja