Twenty girls are dressed in freshly pressed Girl Guide uniforms, swaying from side to side in unison, singing a mournful tune. “South Sudan is crying. South Sudan is weeping,” they sing. Crowds of children are nestled under a big white tent, some perched on white plastic chairs, others peering from behind metal poles. Around the square, dozens of curious neighbors have clustered to watch the performances.
Then, 18-year-old Ayueek Reech grabs the microphone and begins to freestyle.
“Please, stop the violence,” she shouts. “Stop the raping. Give us our peace.”
Reech is a Ranger – the highest-ranking troop of the Girl Guides of South Sudan. She’s been part of the group for years, coming to weekly meet-ups in Juba’s Hai Neem neighborhood. In July last year, when fighting spread across Juba, Reech, who was just about to complete secondary school, says she watched as a woman was raped outside her house.
That’s why she spoke out. She wants people to know that she and her fellow guides have lived the war – they have seen it.
Mary Elias Lado, the chief commissioner for the Girl Guides of South Sudan, estimates that there are about 35,000 guides across the country – or at least there were before the war forced nearly 1.8 million people across the borders as refugees. At least three Girl Guide chapters shut down after fighting forced their members into camps in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan. Most of the Girls Guides’ meager funding comes from USAID, the U.S.government’s development fund.
South Sudan has been embroiled in conflict for decades: first, as the region struggled for independence against Sudan, then during a civil war between factions vying for leadership of the newly created country.
Here, the Girl Guides don’t just learn wilderness survival techniques, arts and crafts. They learn to support each other and deal with the trauma of living in a country in conflict. There is only one badge they can earn: the peace badge, which bears a small white dove. The girls receive the badge after being trained in peace-building, during which they are encouraged to use dialogue to convince their families and friends to put down their weapons.
The girls are trained in conflict mitigation, and encouraged to remind their families and friends to talk about issues, rather than fight.
In one case, after a girl received this training, she went back to her village near Aweil, in South Sudan’s northwest. There had been a cattle raid – when one community steals cows from another. Often, the response is retaliation.
“There was a lot of fighting,” Lado says. “The girl started from within her family. She was like, ‘No, you are not supposed to do this.’”
The girl’s family listened. “From her family, it went to her community,” Lado says. Whenever they can find enough funding, the Girl Guides hold public events designed to let the girls’ voices be heard. They want the government to hear their message of peace, their requests to end the war. But not one official showed up to today’s event.
“We feel that our people should hear that message from our girls,” Lado says. “We invited them to come and listen to the young ones about how they feel in this country of South Sudan. But they never turned up. They didn’t come.”
The Girl Guides focus much of their time on women’s rights. In South Sudan, almost half of girls are married by the time they turn 18, according to UNICEF. Many endure gender-based violence, and are pulled out of school at a young age. “Sometimes parents will not accept,” Lado says. “They will think if a girl is educated, she is spoiled. But we say no, she is not spoiled; the education will help her family, her children.”
Since rape is used as a weapon in the South Sudanese conflict, the girls also learn how to help if one of their friends is raped.
“We teach them how to welcome such girls,” says Stella Lotta, a volunteer and former Girl Guide. “Not to isolate them, but to show them love. To tell them that they are with her. She is not alone in the situation she is going through.”
Lado has been with the Girl Guides since she was six years old, when Sudan and South Sudan were one country. She shakes her head, saying things have changed so much since then.
The groups used to hike up the small mountains in Juba and in the countryside to the east of the city, learning about the region’s rich vegetation. “These days we cannot take them there,” she says, due to landmines.
Despite all of the challenges, the Girl Guide leaders refuse to shut down.
“We cannot leave it. If we leave it, it means we have abandoned our girls,” Lado says.