Help rebuild South Sudan’s civil society

A workshop in Wau, South Sudan helps women learn practical skills like sewing while teaching them about women's rights. Photo by: VSO

Relief and development work in South Sudan is challenging. Aside from the hot dusty climate and poor infrastructure, there are few resources and the workload will be immense. But without question, there is an urgent need for support.

More than 50 years of conflict has seriously disrupted the nation’s health and education services. Rates of maternal and infant mortality are among the world’s highest, and only 27 percent of people over 15 year of age are literate. Women bear the brunt of this; they have the fewest opportunities and struggle to have their voices heard.

The country’s health system is reliant on NGOs, and there are not enough teacher-training facilities. While there is an urgent need for nurses and teachers to train others, organizations like VSO are also looking for people who can work with communities and help them demand that government improve these essential services. The Republic of South Sudan is currently in the process of putting in place strategies to improve the education and health care of the nation, and citizens must be empowered to maintain the pressure on them to deliver.

There are lots of opportunities for people with a background in advocacy or politics, with experience in helping communities engage positively with local authorities, and with an understanding in mobilizing people. The energy that led to South Sudan’s independence now needs to be focused on the process of building a functioning state.

This is an exciting time to be working in South Sudan. Its people, who are friendly and proud, are full of hope for the future and joyous about independence. After so many years of war, the government is producing a new constitution and South Sudanese people who left as refugees are returning from other countries. In addition to this, new women’s organizations are setting up, and VSO has identified a range of roles for campaigners, fundraisers and managers to work with them.

Our volunteers will be working in Western Bahr El Ghazal, Lakes, and the states of Eastern, Western and Central Equatoria – regions chosen to ensure that volunteers safety and security can be managed, avoiding areas with the most conflict and insecure northern states. We provide all of our volunteers with a comprehensive package of support and training, and throughout their placements in South Sudan, we will monitor the security situation. VSO volunteers work in whatever fields are necessary to address the forces that keep people in poverty, from education and health through helping people – and especially women – learn the skills they need to make a living.

>>Sign up for our free Feb. 22 webinar Ask VSO: How volunteering abroad can kickstart your development career

While South Sudan’s constitution sets a 25 percent quota for women’s representation in parliament and the cabinet, it is through civil society that women’s voices will filter upwards from the grassroots to those in power. U.N. Women successfully supported a campaign to educate women about voting in the country’s referendum, but women’s organizations are still not getting enough support.

In Juba, the hot and dusty capital city, the South Sudan Women’s Empowerment Network, run by an U.S.-educated South Sudanese woman and two other staff members, needs help with its campaign to include women’s agendas in the new constitution. The organization is particularly focused on creating provisions for victims of domestic violence, such as setting up emergency response centers and women’s desks in police stations.

The Women’s General Union in Yambio has three members of staff who all have full-time jobs and no experience in running an NGO. They have secured a building, excellent networks and already have started vocational workshops for women, but they need volunteers from the charity sector to help them set up the organization, write professional funding proposals and reports.

A larger organization with 12 members of staff, St. Monica Women Association in Eastern Equatoria is run by a popular young nun who previously worked in refugee camps. The organization has a steady funding stream and a large compound with good buildings for training and accommodation, surrounded by trees and near a local market.

It adopts the same approach as another well established organization, the Women Development Group in Wau, Western Bahr El Ghazal, which both combine practical learning with advocacy. While women are taught skills which can give them an income – such as tailoring and farming – tutors talk about human rights, basic politics and domestic violence.

Many of these women are from rural communities, cannot read or write and have little prior knowledge of their rights. In addition to educating them about the law, the workshops have a positive effect on their communities and men respect them for developing business skills and bringing in an income.

Wau is another interesting place to live, with a wonderful souk-selling cloth, breads and soup and lovely mango trees on the outskirts of the town where welcoming clusters of women and men sit talking in the cooler afternoons.

While the South Sudanese people will welcome volunteers with affectionate handshakes and tea, those with no experience of working in a developing country may find it difficult living in a place with limited electricity, lack of amenities and poor roads. However, you will have an opportunity to contribute to real change in South Sudan.

During the war, services became donor-driven and South Sudan has huge challenges in establishing long-term management structures and training in health and education. In the face of these problems, groups like VSO are helping to educate and train local women who have previously struggled to find opportunities in a traditionally male-dominated society. This investment in civil society is essential to ensure the government is acting in the interests of all its people for a strong and peaceful democracy to truly prosper in South Sudan.

Visit for more information on VSO volunteer opportunities in South Sudan and elsewhere. And sign up for our free 1-hour career webinar on Feb. 22 featuring expert recruiters from VSO, entitled Ask VSO: How volunteering abroad can kickstart your development career.

Read last week’s Career Matters.

About the author

  • Alice Castillejo

    Alice Castillejo has been working in the voluntary sector for 19 years, including nine years overseas and four years with VSO as country director in Cambodia and now, in South Sudan. Her background in community development and good governance has given her a strong commitment to local activism and helping people shape the future of their communities and societies. Alice has volunteered for a number of years while working, and continues to do so whenever time allows.