AKOBO, South Sudan – Five years ago, Mary Nyakang watched her husband die.
“They came into our house and killed him in front of me and the children,” the 39-year-old mother of five said. “They” were South Sudan government soldiers.
Seated on a plastic chair in her small hair salon in the rebel-held town of Akobo, Nyakang says it took years to rebuild her life and provide for her children.
South Sudan’s five-year civil war has killed untold tens of thousands, displaced more than 4 million people and plunged pockets of the country into famine. With most men either fighting, hiding or having been killed, women have borne the brunt of the conflict, having to care for the children while also providing for their families financially.
“I was worried when I lost myhusband,because I had nothing. But if I stayed idle, my children would have died.”
Nyakang is one of 4,000 widows currently sheltering in Akobo town, the last stronghold of the main opposition force in the country, and a makeshift refuge for families who have fled the fighting.
After war broke out between the government troops of South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and forces loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar, Nyakang escaped with her children from the capital, Juba, walking for six days in the bush before reaching Akobo.
Left With Nothing
“I was worried when I lost my husband, because I had nothing,” Nyakang said. “But if I stayed idle, my children would have died.”
When a woman’s husband dies in South Sudan, any property owned goes back to the man’s family. It’s up to them to decide if they want to support his widow and the children. Nyakang’s in-laws didn’t give her anything after he died, she said.
So for years in Akobo, Nyakang risked her life collecting firewood in the forest, where women are often raped or abducted by armed men or rival tribes, to sell at market.
But after two years of barely scraping by, in 2016 Nyakang was given the opportunity to run the town’s first women’s hair salon. Oxfam supports the salon, helping improve the lives of widows by providing them with hair-braiding skills and business training.
Braids hang from the tin walls of the salon, while eager clients sit on the floor admiring their new looks in the mirror. Adjacent to the women’s rooms is a tiny barbershop with two seats for men.
While it began as a small startup, today the salon employs 15 women and seven men, serving 10 customers each day and bringing in more than $100 a week in total. In a good month, Nyakang says she can take home 4,000 South Sudanese pounds ($30), more than ten times what she was making collecting firewood.
“What I like about this program is that it’s community-based,” Nicolo’ Di Marzo, deputy country director for Oxfam, told News Deeply. “We always talk about women’s empowerment, but what does that mean in concrete terms?”
For Di Marzo, the answer to that is independence. He says the success of the program is that it enables women to identify solutions for themselves, while increasing their confidence and giving them a voice within their communities. Since the opportunity at the salon was provided for her, Nyakang has been able to take charge of deciding what the business needs to grow, what services to offer, and which prices to set.
Nyakang is now included in community discussions, said Benjamin Flomo, Oxfam’s acting program manager in Akobo. Before starting in the salon, she didn’t even have a seat at the table in community meetings. Flomo said the project has also acted as a safe space for women, many of who have been abused and feel lonely.
When Marsa Wanyag’s husband was killed six years ago during intra-tribal clashes, his parents gave her a single cow, and allowed her and the three children to lodge at their house.
“They wouldn’t support me anymore; they just said, ‘Go and survive’.”
But when fighting broke out in their town near Akobo in 2015, Wanyag’s in-laws had to take in their other son’s family, and threw the widow and her young children out onto the street.
“They wouldn’t support me anymore; they just said, ‘Go and survive’,” Wanyag said.
Like Nyakang, Wanyag walked to Akobo, where she started doing odd jobs to make ends meet. After a year, she began making and selling bread at a bakery, also supported by Oxfam, together with 20 other women.
Through the bread-making program, Wanyag brings in 2,000 South Sudanese pounds a week (around $15), which allows her to buy food and soap for her children.
Although she said working at the bakery has lifted a huge burden, she still worries about the children’s future. In her culture, one man’s children can never be supported by another – even if the woman remarries. Wanyag said it will be up to her to send her children to school and provide for them for the foreseeable future.
“The biggest challenge is this responsibility of having to do the work of a woman and a man,” she said.
Although both the salon and the bakery have been vital for the survival of women in Akobo, the country’s current economic crisis compounds the inherent challenges of being a single mother. Both Wanyag and Nyakang are able to put food on the table, but they still struggle with school fees and uniforms for their children.
Women who can’t afford to send all their children to school often hold their daughters back to help with the housework. Nyakang’s three girls go to school only part-time, she said, as she needs them around the house and can’t afford the fees.
An Uncertain Future
Funding for both the bakery and the hair salon will stop at the end of May, yet both projects still need support before they’re able to stand on their own.
But with Oxfam itself in crisis, following accusations that its staff engaged in sexual exploitation in Haiti, that looks unlikely. The World Food Programme (WFP) has cut some of its funding to the charity, and although the WFP said ongoing projects, such as those in Akobo, won’t be affected by these cuts, its representatives say the hair salon and bakery will be subject to “additional review” and that right now they won’t be signing any new agreements with Oxfam.
“In the wake of disturbing revelations of sexual misconduct among Oxfam staff in Haiti, WFP is seeking assurances from Oxfam in the countries where we work together that it is meeting the highest standards in terms of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse,” Adnan Khan, WFP’s representative in South Sudan, said.
Nevertheless, Nyakang said she’s looking to the future. Though funding is scarce, she still hopes to expand the salons to other towns in the area to help more widows, while making the one in Akobo bigger.
“We can’t sit at home and do nothing,” she said. “It’s important for widows to make money so we can be independent.”