Young people have to become more politically involved

Wani Saki Michael Lotiyu (30), from South Sudan, is encouraging young people the world over to become politically engaged. He is also committed to the rights of young people and women. ‘We need men to champion women’s rights.’

Image: ©OneWorld
Wani Saki Michael Lotiyu

If the South Sudanese Wani Michael (Wani Saki Michael Lotiyu) can be described as anything, it’s a committed citizen. But for someone with such commitment to his country of birth, he has not spent much time there. Born in 1989 during the civil war, he spent most of his childhood in refugee camps in Uganda. He returned to South Sudan in 2010, where he is very politically active.

Wani is particularly committed to getting more young people involved in politics, worldwide. Last year he represented the young people of South Sudan in peace negotiations between the government and the opposition. Now, as youth representative, he is a member of the National Constitutional Amendment Committee.

Challenging ignorance

Wani is also committed to improving the position of women, and getting men involved in helping  find solutions to problems women often have to deal with alone. One example of how he is doing this is his Okay Africa Foundation, which is involving men in conversations on issues like menstruation and in campaigns to exempt sanitary towels from taxation. And as part of his Men4Women campaign, men are handing out sanitary towels on Valentine’s Day.

From a young age, Wani was aware of domestic violence. For example, one of his neighbours in the Mongula refugee camp in Uganda beat his wife every day. Wani’s wish to do something to prevent gender-related violence grew stronger when, as a student of development studies, he visited the school where his father worked in South Sudan in 2010. Gender-related violence is highly prevalent in Goli, the region where the school is situated.

Wani was surprised by the responses of the men and women he spoke to. ‘The women knew exactly what I was talking about, as they’d all experienced it in one form or another.’ It was different for the men: they had no idea what Wani meant when he asked if they knew that hitting your wife was one of the worst things a man could do. ‘They didn’t know what women’s rights were! That had to change.’

Men as advocates

In 2016 Wani became director of the Okay Africa Foundation, a non-profit organisation that runs various community projects aimed at boosting the resilience of women and young people. He and his colleagues thought long and hard about how they should address gender-related problems.

"It’s men who prevent women from entering the political arena. We need men who champion women’s issues."

‘We needed to get men more involved,’ Wani explains. ‘Women’s issues are often seen as problems that only affect women, and something they have to deal with alone. But it’s men who rape women. And it’s men who prevent women from entering the political arena. We need men who champion women’s issues. Men who are feminists. So they can help other men understand that it’s not okay to beat women. That women have rights, and men need to treat women with respect. We need that equality. So that we can tackle gender issues from the male perspective.’

The Okay Africa Foundation visited primary and secondary schools and talked to girls and boys together about reproductive health, like how to use sanitary towels. ‘We wanted boys to understand that girls experience physical changes just as they do.

Reports from the Ministry of Education noted that girls sometimes leave school because they are bullied for menstruating. We tell boys they mustn’t do that. And that it is their responsibility to look after a girl who is menstruating. She is your sister.’ The Foundation plans to extend these talks on gender issues to adults.

Gender equality as a western concept

But, as Wani says, it’s not so easy. ‘In our country, talking about menstruation is taboo. It was a big challenge to get the issue raised in schools, even for us: people are embarrassed to talk about it. This is deeply rooted in our culture, as is the assumption that men make all the decisions. Even when it comes to family planning, the man makes the decisions, not the woman. In that sense, men even control women’s bodies.’

"South Sudanese people think that gender equality is a western concept and say “it’s for white people”. We’re trying to change that."

Wani thinks that this can be explained by the dowry, which he also paid for his own wife. ‘In South Sudan you pay the woman’s family before you can get married. This can be money, or for example 100 cows or sheep. Many people think that once you’ve paid you’re entitled to complete control.’ It’s clear that very few people are willing to discuss this – not even the government. ‘South Sudanese people think that gender equality is a western concept and say “it’s for white people”. We’re trying to change that.’

Still, Wani is seeing some changes. ‘It won’t happen overnight. It’s a process. For example, to challenge gender stereotypes we need more women in parliament,’ says Wani. ‘Thanks to affirmative action, women now on average occupy 35% of positions across all levels of government in South Sudan.’ (Editor’s note: the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs puts this figure at 27%).

Getting young people out of their comfort zone

The government is also getting younger, says Wani happily. ‘72 per cent of our population is aged 15 to 35. They need to have a say in how our country should move forward.’ He calls on young people – wherever they are in the world – to become politically engaged. ‘Young people are in the majority, but we don’t have our fate in our own hands. Other people decide for us. Young people need to get out of their comfort zone if they want their countries to progress. Rights are not given, rights are demanded’.

"Rights are not given, rights are demanded"

Many young people think politics are not for them, as it’s often assumed to be for the elite only, or a dirty game. ‘The people who claim to have freed our country, like the South Sudan Liberation Movement, often act as if politics is the domain of the older generation and that they’re the only ones who can talk about how the country is run. They just want to keep on ruling over us.’ Young people can change this, Wani thinks, and hopes they’ll speak out and get involved in local elections.

Not intimidated

He knows from experience that it’s not always easy to take that step. As the youngest member of the South Sudanese National Constitutional Amendment Committee, he is sometimes referred to as the ‘grandchild’. ‘The first time I attended a meeting, other committee members said “Go and play football”. But I wasn’t intimidated by their age and titles, and said that I would be raising important issues. Now they miss me when I’m not there, as they know I flag things that can change the country.’

Take, for example, the government. Wani is very proud of recent appointments for three ministerial posts, for which he had lobbied. The Minister of Youth and Sports and the Minister of Petroleum – ‘a major contributor to our economy,’ according to Wani – are in their thirties. And the environment minister is both young and a woman. Wani hopes to stand as a candidate himself in the future, running for governor or maybe even president. ‘We need to be the leaders of today, not tomorrow.’

Published by OneWorld

This interview was first published in Dutch by Zuid-Sudan heeft mannen nodig die opkomen voor vrouwenrechten. Author: Katja Keuchenius.

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Do you want to hear more stories from youth in Africa and the Middle-East? The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs organised the virtual forum Youth at Heart. Here young people from the Middle East and Africa discussed their experiences and thoughts about education, work and participation.

All sessions of the Youth at Heart virtual forum that was broadcasted on 2 November 2020, can be watched on our YouTube channel: Livestream 4 studio's on YouTube