Finally, the time had come. After several telephone calls to the South Sudanese Embassy in Geneva in the weeks before, I held the visa for the stay in the youngest state in the world in my hand - two days before departure. Andrea, managing director of Horyzon, accompanied me on my first project trip as programme manager for our new project. In the programme, young people in the South Sudanese province of Yambio learn more about their sexual and reproductive health rights, gain access to contraception and talk about sexual and gender based violence. The project activities start in February this year. Therefore, the aim of this project trip was to finalize the planning, to establish contacts with representatives of the authorities and to talk to the beneficiaries of the project.
With a flight over Cairo, Andrea and I finally made our way to Juba, the capital city of South Sudan. Already on the landing approach, we suddenly realized what it means to be in third last place on the Human Development Index: Skyscrapers? No chance. Wooden and mud huts lined up side by side, only a few of the roads were tarred and the airport was packed with UN planes. As soon as we got off the plane, we were immediately asked to wash our hands and our body temperature was measured. This served to identify possible Ebola patients and to initiate appropriate measures. An Ebola epidemic would have devastating effects in South Sudan due to the limited medical resources.
After the airport's only baggage conveyor finally spit out my bag and the obligatory, dry "OK" of the security guard was obtained, we were already out on the streets of Juba. There was a lot going on there: People crossed the street as they liked, the few traffic lights were always on green and dogs, goats and chickens went in search of food in the ditches.
After a warm welcome by our partner organisation YWCA South Sudan, we started to clarify important details concerning the project. In the exchange with our partners we learned an enormous amount about the country, culture and the topic of teenage pregnancies in South Sudan. We learned that there are up to 64 different ethnic groups in South Sudan and that the country has one of the highest rates of youth pregnancies worldwide. This knowledge was further deepened the next day when we were able to visit the different projects of YWCA in Juba. We first visited the YWCA counselling centre at the Juba Teaching Hospital, where patients are psychologically accompanied when they are tested for HIV, and then we visited a market stand, which "Mama Regina" was able to rent thanks to the financial support of the economic empowerment group of the YWCA South Sudan. This market stall allowed her to buy enough food every day thanks to the sale of fish and onions.
At the end of the day we were allowed to attend another session of the "Let Girls Talk" discussion group. In this group, girls and young women discuss at regular intervals the problems they encounter in their everyday lives. Whether it is the lack of autonomy in choosing a partner, disregard for gender or discrimination in personal hygiene, in this round the girls have the opportunity to exchange ideas with their peers and to work through their experiences. Two hours later we had learned a lot about the image of women and the subordinate role of women in the different tribes of Southern Sudan. It became clear that each tribe has its own culture and it is not possible to speak of a Southern Sudanese culture in general.
In the following two days we also had the opportunity to get to know the region where the project of YWCA Yambio and Horyzon is implemented. Yambio is a region in the southwest of the country with about 40'000 inhabitants. Apart from visits to representatives of the authorities, meetings with teachers and young women who became mothers as teenagers were on the agenda. Impressive and sometimes in tears, these mothers told us their stories, often about domestic violence and fugitive husbands.
All these stories showed: Why young women become mothers as teenagers often has different, individual reasons. But poverty, lack of sexual education, sexual violence, the position of women in society and the social environment always play an important role.
The fact that the education of the girls was partly insufficient and that the social environment also plays an important role in youth pregnancies was confirmed by the teachers in conversation. For example, the subject of family planning is certainly part of the teaching curriculum, but unfortunately only at higher levels, when many of the pregnant girls have already had to leave school. Depressed by the suffering and encouraged by our motivated partner organisation and the positive discussions with the authorities, we finally set off again for Juba.
There, with the signing of the contract, the official starting signal, we were able to take the first steps to enable young people in Yambio to work out alternative ways of life and to enable young women to achieve social and economic autonomy.