On a typically hot and bright afternoon in Aweil town, north-western South Sudan, Nafisa takes her seat in a small patch of shade under some trees. She joins 14 other members in a recently-established peace committee set up to defuse any tensions or other problems that may be arising among tribal communities.
Nafisa is more invested in the committee’s success than most. Her son, Nuer, is married to a Dinka woman, two groups historically often in conflict with each other. She hopes her work can prevent the tensions that have plagued much of South Sudan in previous years.
“Our people are now solving problems,” said Nafisa. “We have managed to decrease some child marriages and advocate for children to remain in school. We are not seeing our differences, but rather we are viewing each other just as one — South Sudanese.”
The peace committee is part of a wider COVID19-compliant network of social structures, supported by UNDP. These include youth groups, economic collectives and training programmes, aimed at helping preserve social cohesion and justice.
COVID19 has led to rising food prices and other economic problems which could easily spark fresh tensions and competition over scarce natural resources.
Nafisa’s peace group is just one of a number of initiatives around the world supported by UNDP to bolster peace and development in crisis-affected areas. They are being showcased and reflected upon in the Development Dialogues campaign, a series of virtual events launched in March to identify more agile and adaptive approaches to development and governance.
Participants from governments, UN agencies, international institutions, NGOs, academia, business leaders, and civil society are being encouraged to engage in critical and reflexive evaluations of current development and governance models through five lenses of Peace, Prosperity, People, Planet and Partnerships.
“Peaceful societies are not a static state of being,” said Asako Okai, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director for the Crisis Bureau. “By standing still, we can easily find ourselves slipping backwards. It’s crucial that we don’t allow the COVID19 pandemic to reverse decades of hard-won gains.”
In Baidoa, Somalia, a town that has been ravished by recent floods and climate-linked events, UNDP is helping Khowla, 25, break new ground by running an Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre. It mediates disagreements among local communities, everything from land theft to domestic violence.
It has been a crucial safe space for women and girls, at a time when NGOs are reporting that the pandemic has caused already high-levels of sexual and gender-based violence to rise even further.
“Rape happens a lot in our community,” says Khowla. “We are still trying to find a solution to this problem and it’s the same with domestic violence, especially now that cases have gone up since COVID-19.”
Khowla faces significant challenges. Women struggle to take leadership roles in her traditional community and she has received death threats from some who disagree with her on women’s rights.
“Is the work I do dangerous? Yes, but I take the challenge for the betterment of society. I am inspired by a quote from Audre Lorde: ‘I am not free when any other woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from mine,” she says.
Technology has played an increasingly prominent role in preserving social ties during the pandemic. As part of a three-day ‘hackathon’ organized by UNDP and its partners in Chad, Cherifie Ahmat Doudoua and Épiphanie Nodjikoua Dionrang defeated 10 other teams to take first place by creating an app that helps survivors of sexual violence find support services.
“We live in a society where violence against women is seen as a normal, banal fact and this is ingrained in certain local cultures, where it remains muzzled in a culture of silence,” Épiphanie says. “The app’s mission is to give a voice to women, to listen to them with an attentive ear but also to guide them towards organizations that can help. While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, some young girls and women are not safe in their shelters. The confinement has exacerbated the violence against women. With our app, the victims can contact us remotely and we can come to their aid.”