South Sudan has witnessed a devastating conflict which started in December 2013 and has forced 4.3 million people to leave their homes. On Wednesday September 12, the warring parties signed a peace agreement in Addis Ababa which seeks to end conflict in the war-torn nation.
In addition to the high-level peace agreement, community-level peace-building and the restoration of relationships at a grassroots level and within households remains crucial.
One of many community peace-builders in South Sudan is Evelyn Letio, a widow and mother of four who runs a network dedicated to educating women on self-care, treatment, and raising awareness of the rights of those living with HIV. She explains why peace-building at the grassroots is essential.
Without peace, life is so difficult. As a person living with HIV, you might have access to antiretroviral treatment, but if you don't have food, your medicine is useless. Who can take such strong drugs on an empty stomach?
I help women to access simple things, like food and clean water. But I want more than this – I want to see real reconciliation.
Living with HIV has taught me so much about how to resolve conflict. When I first learnt I was HIV+ I wanted to bring my dead husband out of the ground and cut him to pieces. I was so full of anger and bitterness that he had brought HIV into our lives. I thought of nothing but death and revenge. I never imagined living with HIV could bring reconciliation.
In the midst of my illness and despair, God told me: "My daughter, with or without HIV, you must live."
Through living with HIV I have felt the resentment that comes with rejection and isolation. In my country, if you live with HIV, women are chased away from their homes and abandoned by their families, left to starve. The bedridden are carried into the bush and left to die. Others have been dismissed from their jobs.
My experience living with HIV led me to start the National Empowerment of Positive Women United network in 2013 and we now have 1,597 members. Most but not all of us have a positive status. If someone comes to me in a state of emotional brokenness, worn down by illness or the conflict, I listen. In South Sudan conflict has devastated the lives of millions.
Around 400 of our members contracted HIV because they were raped. Many of us are survivors of sexual violence. It is men that are fighting, but everybody suffers. Women and children suffer disproportionately because there is so much sexual and gender-based violence – girls as young as three years old have been raped and killed.
There is so much need for healing and forgiveness. Neighbourhoods are divided along ethnic lines, but our women's groups are coming together. It doesn't matter who you are. We are all South Sudanese. God put us all together in this country. Peace has to start at home. Self-care and trauma healing are essential parts of my HIV prevention work.
When Tearfund invited me to join the Inspired Individuals peace and reconciliation programme, my eyes opened wider. I used to think peace building was just connected to politics. I realise now that so much of my work is about restoring peace in the community.
If we, who are extremely marginalised because of our HIV+ status, can find our place and voice, surely it will give hope to others that they too can achieve acceptance, worth, dignity and be part of transforming our country, whatever their age, gender, status or difference.
We are already seeing peaceful co-existence, forgiveness and unity in the places we are working. Reconciliation must start in our own hearts and flows from there to the family, the neighbourhood and the entire community, regardless of ethnicity or HIV status. This must be our future.'
Evelyn Letio is one of Tearfund's Inspired Individuals, part of a programme that identifies, develops and connects emerging Christian leaders around the world.