Zabib, balancing motherhood and activism in South Sudan
In light of International Women's Day, on March 8, Shelter City's women's rights activist shares her experience of balancing the extreme demands of her work with family life.
'Being an activist shouldn’t stop women from having children, and having children shouldn’t stop women from their activist work. Let’s not give up. The challenge is real, but women should not accept to be taken advantage of. If you can speak, please speak. If you can’t speak, tell a sister, tell someone. Please, women, let’s have the sisterhood that is needed so we can help ourselves.'
Zabib is a mother of two young children and the founder and director of Women for Justice and Equality. She is based in Juba, South Sudan, a country where women face extraordinary challenges: rates of sexual and gender-based violence are among the highest in the world; opportunities for education and vocational training are scarce; laws and patriarchal norms limit women’s ability to inherit land, start a business, and lead in public affairs.
‘Just calling yourself a feminist or an activist in South Sudan is a problem,’ admits Zabib.
The country gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, making it the world’s youngest sovereign state. The British colonial period was marked by acute underdevelopment, and its recent history is tainted with ethnic violence, war, and human rights abuses. Within this context, Zabib fights for justice for the survivors of gender-based violence, supports economic empowerment for women, and advocates for the inclusion of women’s voices in the formation of national policy and the constitution.
'If they can’t target you, they will look for another way to weaken your voice. I worry that my children could be the next target all the time'
Human rights defenders increasingly face violent attempts to prevent them from reporting human rights violations to international organisations. This means that every day, Zabib worries about what would happen to her children should she be arrested or disappear.
Her fear isn’t unfounded: she has already received threats as a direct result of her legal efforts to protect the rights and property of a community in Juba. When the local government tried to violently evict an entire community from their land, her organisation began a campaign, eventually suing the officials involved. The case was not only thrown out, it lead to threats to destroy her home.
‘If they can’t target you, they will look for another way to weaken your voice. I worry that my children could be the next target all the time.’
Daily struggle for balance
‘When I think about my children, I think about stopping, of letting go. But the next minute someone is knocking on my door. That person needs help, that person needs psychosocial support, that person has been abused. And you have to do something. Sometimes I feel like quitting, but I love what I do as a job, I love activism.’
Some of the pressure she experiences comes from within her extended family and wider community, who expect a woman to be the primary caregiver in the home. Even though her work improves the lives of all women in South Sudan, working outside the home is seen by many as a selfish occupation, uncaring to the needs of her husband and children.
‘Because of all this pressure, sometimes you feel isolated. If you think about it too much, it affects you. You think that they hate you, that you’re just a bad person. And in my culture, women who speak boldly are a big threat. But if you focus on how people think about you, then you’re going to suffer for the rest of your life.’
Before her experience in Shelter City, she says that she paid little attention to issues of self-care. ‘The first years, I kept my phone next to my pillow. I’d wake up any time, respond to anything.’
Now she has a strict programme in the mornings before leaving for work that includes exercising and spending focussed time with the children. ‘At the end of the day, when the children are asleep and the world is quiet, I go into meditation to get ready for the next day. I learned that you can’t help other people sustainably if your own cup isn’t full.’
According to Zabib, a big part of success in finding a functional work-life balance is having a partner who understands and supports an activist’s work. Zabib’s husband is a businessman, a Muslim man who himself experiences social pressure ‘to reign in’ his wife.
‘At the end of the day, when the children are asleep and the world is quiet, I go into meditation to get ready for the next day. I learned that you can’t help other people sustainably if your own cup isn’t full.’
‘He’s supportive, most of the time. We discuss things and we share ideas.’ He is accustomed to taking care of the children during her short visits to the field and also covered the three months she was away in the Netherlands. Before that, she hadn’t had a proper holiday in five years.
The making of an activist
Zabib is in her mid-30s and has managed her human rights organisation for seven years now. One of eight siblings, she was raised from the age of four (as is common in many parts of Africa) by her maternal aunt and uncle. Her mother passed away when she was nine years old.
‘We are eight siblings, seven girls and one boy, but I had to pick up the mantel.’ I am sixth, in the very middle, but because of – I don’t want to call it my sharpness – because of the way I chose to lead my life, I find myself expected to resolve family issues.’
When she was sixteen, her uncle passed away, which resulted in their eviction from the family home and the end to funds for school fees. She worked to pay her own way, even when the family was displaced by the civil war. She lived and studied in Nairobi in Kenya, and Kampala in Uganda, eventually obtaining a master’s degree in human rights and governance.
A desire for change
Zabib was aware of the difficult lives of women and the issues of rights from a very young age. An older sister was sexually abused while living in the home of another branch of the family. Zabib was stimulated by her aunt and uncle to get an education and taught the importance of self-reliance, but no adult ever spoke of things like rape or abuse.
‘Activism, this feminism, is not a culture that we have in South Sudan. It is a new language in our context, something people have to learn.’
She was introduced to much of that language, to women’s rights and the power women can have in improving their lives by friends and female teachers in Kampala. Since then, her focus has been to create a better world for all women, for her own children, for the grassroots communities of South Sudan.
Her message to other mothers who struggle to balance their activism with their family lives is simple: 'Being an activist shouldn’t stop women from having children, and having children shouldn’t stop women from their activist work. Let’s not give up. The challenge is real, but women should not accept to be taken advantage of. If you can speak, please speak. If you can’t speak, tell a sister, tell someone. Please, women, let’s have the sisterhood that is needed so we can help ourselves.’
This article is written by Diane Lemieux, and contributed by Justice & Peace.