As A Child, She Fled War in South Sudan—Now Rabecca Mathew Fights For Peace

   •    October 29, 2015

Rabecca Matthew

Rabecca Mathew was born into war. Her family fled violence in South Sudan when she was just two years old, to a refugee camp in Uganda. “I didn’t get to know what peace meant,” she says. “I didn’t get to live in my own country or have the normal development process that a child should have where you don’t feel restricted.”

But rather than paralyze her, the difficult circumstances of refugee camp life motivated Rabecca to strive for more—for herself and her community: “As I was growing up I was just thinking to myself: ‘This does not need to happen to another child.’”

When Rabecca’s father passed away, her mother, who had never been to school, was left to care for a family of seven. She attended microfinance meetings so she could earn a stable income, and made sure all of her children stayed in school. Though she already had too many mouths to feed, she would invite neighbors to share in the family’s meals.

Following her mother’s lead, Rabecca became a camp ambassador for a program that supported adolescent girls and vulnerable women. She was soon recognized as a young leader in the camp.

Then, when she was 13, Rabecca met a woman who would change her life. On World Refugee Day, Dr. Specioza Naigaga Wandira Kazibwe—then vice president of Uganda—visited the camp. Rabecca was selected to present a poem at the welcome ceremony. Seeing the potential in this young woman, Dr. Kazibwe offered then and there to pay for her schooling until she turned 18. “She was not related to me, but she used her resources to support me,” Rabecca now reflects. “This was an opportunity for me to realize my dreams.”

Rabecca decided to pay it forward. Now, returned to her native country, she has made peace her central focus. As a civil society activist, she brings together communities torn apart by years of conflict. She also works with local authorities to build their capacity to successfully deliver services to the people, in a way that doesn’t fuel existing tensions or create new conflict.

In one village, security personnel arrested and tortured community members for protesting the privatization of their land. Despite threats to her life, Rabecca reported these abuses to international human rights organizations. This is just one way that she gives voice to those who are marginalized.

Rabecca (first row, fifth from the left) with other members of the Taskforce on the Engagement of Women in Sudan and South Sudan in October 2013.

She also elevates community concerns up to the international policy level via her work with the Taskforce on the Engagement of Women in Sudan and South Sudan. The Taskforce, which has been mobilizing women for peace on both sides of the border since 2013, advocates to the government, opposition, and international mediators. They have recommended concrete actions all parties can take to increase the credibility and effectiveness of the peace process in South Sudan by ensuring it is inclusive, comprehensive, and gender-sensitive.

Addressing the underlying drivers of conflict and elevating the voices of citizens has never been more critical in South Sudan than it is today. The warring parties recently signed a peace agreement to end violence that has claimed thousands of lives. Now they must implement the terms of the accord. Women like Rabecca are the key to success. Through her relationships at the local level, she has access to people and information that will be critical in monitoring the ceasefire and preventing the resumption of war.

According to Rabecca, “if advocacy is not informed by grassroots issues, we are not doing enough.” As a member of the Taskforce, she’s advocating for community needs to be a core part of the peace process. Indeed, this is the only way to ensure that peace will last.

Just as her mother and Dr. Kazibwe gave her a better future, Rabecca knows that the leadership of women can guarantee brighter times ahead for South Sudan. “I have no doubt that women are very important and have to be involved in decision-making,” she says, “There is nothing that a woman cannot do.”

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