Since her appointment as South Sudan’s first woman vice president last year, Rebecca Nyandeng Garang de Mabior says she has strived to demonstrate to her people that women belong in politics.
The 65-year-old widow of John Garang de Mabior, a national hero who struggled for independence after decades a war between north and south, says gender parity is a long way off in Africa’s youngest country.
But she hopes to lead by example, showing women can offer a different perspective to men in political leadership.
“The way I look at things as a woman is not the same thing as a man. So, I'm a headache to them,” she said in an exclusive interview from her office in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
“There's something I call a woman's touch. There is a woman’s touch in leadership.
“Because I will not leave any stone unturned, asking questions: ‘Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that?’”
She says some men may find a woman’s approach “a thorn in the flesh”, but she aims to “work together with men to reach the nation’s goals".
Mrs Garang’s career in politics sprouted from her marriage in 1975 to John Garang, a man who would come to be known to future generations as the leader who laid the foundations for South Sudan to declared independence in 2011.
She was his lifetime companion, accompanying him in his four years studying in the US in the 1970s as well as in the forests and mountains as a fighter.
When the Second Civil War broke out in the state of Bor 1983, Garang rushed to collect his wife and two sons and drove them to a safe place in the state of Jonglei. The family kept moving until they reached Malakal in the Upper Nile state. The couple and their two children spent nights in no-man’s-land — the struggle was under way and the harsh days of the bush had begun.
In 1986, Mrs Garang travelled to Cuba to train as a soldier. She had moved up the military ladder in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement from first lieutenant, to captain and eventually to lieutenant general.
Mrs Garang had to wear many hats. Along with her military responsibilities, she was a cook for the soldiers, a nurse to the sick, a wife to the commander-in-chief and a mother to her growing family.
In 1999, she had the task of creating an NGO that would offer vocational training to those affected by the struggle, which came to be known as Wodrans (Widows, Orphans and Disabled, Rehabilitation Association for New Sudan). Beneficiaries of this organisation would receive training to be blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.
The Garangs had six children and the husband did not take another wife, even if social norms dictated he could have had multiple spouses.
For her, Garang was a great husband, father, a man who fought for freedom and a thinker with a vision.
“At first, when we started this struggle, I was a bit greedy. I wanted him to myself, because he's a good man, a loving man. Why do I have to share him with something else?” she said.
“But I told myself, I'm a daughter and a woman of this nation. If he can liberate my people, why don't I share him and I pray that God one day will give him to me so that I have him to myself. But God did not do that. He has liberated the people of South Sudan. God has given him that. But he has gone,” she says.
Garang died in a plane crash in 2005, six months after he signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the former regime of Omar Al Bashir, marking the end of two decades of war that had divided the country.
Six years later, the country voted for independence by a landslide in a referendum. But it was a short-lived joy. In 2013, a violent conflict broke out, triggered by political and tribal conflict in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The civil war is believed to have resulted in close to 400,000 deaths and has displaced up to four million people, said a report published in 2018 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and financed by the US State Department. Women in particular have faced the brunt of years of violence, abuses and repressive gender norms.
After the civil war broke out, Mrs Garang went to Kenya in self-imposed exile and returned in 2018, when President Salva Kiir Mayardit signed a peace agreement with rebel factions to end the war that had crushed the country’s progress and transformation into a viable state.
In February last year, she was appointed as one of five vice presidents as part of national unity efforts to rebuild the country and end ethnic divisions.
'South Sudan is not greater than us'
Mrs Garang is critical of how women in her society are largely relegated to secondary caring roles.
She wants to change conventional stereotypes now that she has assumed the powerful position.
“There were mixed feelings towards my appointment. They were not looking at me as Madame Rebecca, but they were looking at me as the wife of John Garang. So, they were thinking she might do a good job because she was the wife of John Garang,” she said.
Asked if women operate differently when running a country, she said men are greedy and self-centred.
“We carry people at heart as women. But men carry their interests. They think of the election coming,” she said.
Mrs Garang, who is in charge of gender, child and social welfare in the country, is working towards redressing the gender disparity that affects many aspects of women’s lives in South Sudan, including education, health and sexual violence.
“In South Sudan, our population of women are more than 50 per cent. So, I wanted to see women included in the nation-building. If we empower women economically, this country will run smoothly,” she said.
Sudan has a target of 35 per cent female participation in state institutions, cemented in the 2018 peace agreement.
Women currently make up less than 20 per cent of positions at the national and state levels, the Centre for Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice in South Sudan said.
Mrs Garang says maintaining the hard-won peace after the brutal civil war and cementing power-sharing dynamics are crucial to enacting ambitious gender policies and achieving progress in the country.
“South Sudan is not greater than us. We need to fix the mess we created first, chiefly to bring security to the people of South Sudan, to fix the economy of this country.
“And this is what this agreement is all about and we need to implement this agreement in good faith, develop political will, where democracy has to come,” she said.
Mrs Garang admits there’s a “culture of fear” among the young, who are not as free as politicians think and are scared to speak their minds out about how the country should be run.
“The fear from us because we are afraid of being criticised as leaders. The leaders don't want to be criticised. Because If you are criticised, there is a problem. That's why there was a problem in 2013 [when the civil war began],” she said.
On whether the first woman president of South Sudan could be around the corner, Mrs Garang says it is not about the post but what a person brings to the people.
“I want to do the best of my ability with this job for the people of South Sudan. The women and the children are yearning for a good job. Their ears are itching for good words. Their eyes are itching to see good things being done in their own country, a rich country like South Sudan, where people are not able to get anything,” she said.
South Sudan’s women must have great expectations of Mrs Garang and she is certainly keen to see more women contribute to politics and the economy in particular.
So, can they expect improvement in their lives and the alleviation of poverty with a woman like her in charge?
Only time will tell, she says.