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March 20, 2018

Youths hopeful to bring peace through sports: The Third National Unity Day

Searching for an exit from the protracted conflict

South Sudan was born as the newest country in the world in 2011, as it gained its independence following a half-century of struggles in which millions of lives were lost. In December 2013, not long after efforts began to build the nation, it entered into a conflict whereby forces of the government and the oppositions engaged. While a solution to the protracted conflict is long awaited, over 2.4 million South Sudanese have fled the country and another 1.8 million have been internally displaced since the onset of the conflict (UNHCR Feb 2018). It is feared that the ongoing violence can lead to the aggravation of the feeling of distrust among South Sudanese, creating and reinforcing negative perceptions against each other. In order for South Sudan to attain lasting peace and prosperity as one nation, it is necessary to bring people together as one people.

In response to this situation, the first National Unity Day (NUD) was hosted in January 2016 in the capital Juba under the theme Peace and Unity, by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, South Sudan with support from JICA. The initiative aimed to facilitate interactions and promote friendship through sports, and to address any negative perceptions associated with places of origin, tribe, sex or other differences. In doing so, it aimed to make a contribution to the process of reconciliation and peace. JICA's support of the initiative continues since. From 27 January to 4 February 2018, the Third NUD was held in Juba under the theme ‘Sports for Peace and Social Cohesion', for which over 300 youths from across South Sudan and Abyei gathered. The 9 day program was comprised of a men's football tournament, women's volleyball matches, athletic events, youth workshops on peace and life skills, and recreational and cultural activities.

PhotoThe Third National Unity Day was joined by over 300 youths representing 12 regions in South Sudan and Abyei

PhotoAthletics was the only sport for which South Sudan sent its athletes to the Rio Olympic Games, the very first Olympic Games the country participated

The celebration of diversity and unity for all South Sudanese

"NUD was the talk of the town", says William Lemor, the National Coordinator of the initiative with a sense of pride, after the successful completion of the program. The NUD this year was comprised of 16 football and 9 volleyball matches, 8 track events, ‘Peace and Culture Day' which aimed at facilitating friendly interaction among youths and with the members of the public, and grand opening and closing ceremonies. Including pre-NUD community events held at three locations in Juba, the entire festivities lasted for a period of three weeks. Public festivities of this scale, accessible to anyone are unheard of in Juba, and attracted thousands of people at each event.

"I felt when people are together it shows a sign of peace in the country. People interacting with different people from different states shows love for other", said one of the audience. Another commented, "I wish this should how people should be in this country".

PhotoA crowd watching one of the woman volleyball matches

PhotoExcitement at the final football match

Challenging gender stereotypes

The roles of South Sudanese women and girls are often limited to family care: Many young girls assume responsibilities for fetching water, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of their siblings. Many girls marry and give births before reaching adulthood. The enrollment rate in secondary education for girls is half of that of boys (UNESCO 2018). Fear for Gender Based Violence on the way to school and lack of adequate sanitation facility at school are often cited as some of the challenges for girls to access education, in addition to the expectation from the traditional society on the roles of girls and women.

This year, the NUD added women volleyball competitions for the first time, aiming to create an opportunity for women and girls to demonstrate their talents, strengths and courage in public, and to challenge such gender stereotypes. Responding to the invitation to the competition, five volleyball teams, representing Abyei, Greater Warrap, Greater Upper Nile, Greater Jonglei and Greater Central Equatoria joined the game. This also helped the NUD to achieve an increase in women participation, from 21% in the previous year to 36%.

PhotoThe volleyball match between Greater Warrap and Greater Upper Nile regions

Youths hope to bring peace

During the NUD, over 300 young athletes from 12 regions across South Sudan and Abyei stayed together for 10 days in a temporary accommodation set up for the program. The experience in the accommodation served as a unique and precious opportunity for youths to get to know each other and make friends with youths from different parts of the country. "I was worried about how the place would look like and how other teams from other regions would treat me", said a football player. "But later on that evening when we met, they were cool and friendly and so I began to like them too. I enjoy sharing experiences and sport materials with them". A volleyball player representing Upper Nile Region said, "the interaction with people from every corner of South Sudan was the most beautiful experience ever". Such sentiment was echoed by many others.

Feedback from youths also indicated that sports served as an agent to bring people together, not only physically but also mentally. "Before I came here I thought I would not share anything with people from certain regions, but I changed. I shared things with different people from different regions', said a player from Aweil. "Sports bring people together and gave me chance to meet people. In sports players do not have bad emotions with people but instead we share skills".

In addition to sports events, the youths participated in awareness sessions on fair play, peace building, gender and HIV/AIDS, along with recreational and cultural activities. When asked about future plans, a football player of Bentiu team responded, "I will bring young boys together by creating an academy for football regardless of their tribes or states and play as a team". A volleyball player from Bor was eager to act, saying, "I will advocate for peace, unity and social cohesion from what I learned in the NUD. I will participate in activities that promote peace and strongly discourage forced marriages".

It is hoped that once they returned home, they will share their learning with their peers and will take a leading role in helping build a society where people respect each other and coexist in harmony.

PhotoOn the Peace and Culture Day, designed to facilitate interactions among youths and with the public, offered dances and recreational games such as ‘Tag of Peace'

PhotoA facilitator from UNMISS Civil Affairs Division explains that unity is dependent on each member of the society who should stay strong and hold their positions, in one of the awareness workshops

Partners came together to achieve a greater outcome

It was not only youths and audience members who were brought together by this sports for peace initiative. In response to a call for support, a number of partners came forward. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) helped airlift 5 athletics and 3 volleyball teams, totaling 122 persons, from their hometowns to Juba. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), through its Bangladeshi contingent, improved 4 playgrounds used for NUD events and contributed cultural performances on the opening day. UNMISS also helped with facilitating awareness workshops for youths and disseminating relevant news stories through Radio Miraya.

AMS Clothing, an Australian retail company which also supports South Sudan National Football Team, donated jerseys to all football teams. Bolloré Logistics, an international logistics company whose headquarters are in France, offered to support trophies, medals and other necessary goods. A mobile communication company VivaCell helped with dissemination of invitations by SMS to its users.

From Japan, Daichi Suzuki, Commissioner of Japan Sports Agency and an Olympic gold medalist sent a message (See link) of support, while balls and nets used for the volleyball competitions were donated by the Japan Volleyball Association. Support and donations also arrived from the members of the public. The Rumbek football team, representing the Greater Lakes Region, was able to join the tournament thanks to donations from individuals who instantly reacted to a comment in a radio show stating that the team could not join due to financial difficulty.

PhotoUNMISS Bangladeshi contingent performed music, dances and a magic show on the Opening Day

A story later on

The Bentiu Football Team representing the Greater Unity Region was formed by youths staying in the Protection of Civilians (POC) site in Juba. The team proceeded to the semifinal and landed the fourth place in the tournament. After this event, it was reported that some team members have been recruited by football clubs in Juba. Having gained confidence that it is safe to leave POC from the positive experience during the NUD, it is reported that they now stay in town, leaving the POC behind. Trauma from having been exposed to violence should take a long time to heal. Nonetheless, if this initiative helped some of the affected to gain enough courage, and reconcile with the society surrounding them, that should bring us one step closer to achieving our ultimate goal, to bring peace to South Sudan, through the NUD.

PhotoTorit and Bentiu football teams praised each other for a game well played


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