In a highly anticipated meeting next week, President Obama will sit with Sudanese leaders at the United Nations to discuss the upcoming referendum on independence for the southern part of their country. The vote, scheduled for January 2011 is a pivotal test for the diplomatic community and a potentially historic moment for the war-torn African state.
Although they will not be sitting at the table, the young women of southern Sudan represent a crucial pillar to the rebuilding of the nation.
Of the region's young women, aged 14 through 17, only 2 percent are enrolled in secondary school. In its latest report, the Women Refugee Commission's (WRC) highlighted the importance of providing economic opportunity for southern Sudan's young women. The report looked at sectors where young women in southern Sudan are working and the areas where they had a growing presence.
In an interview with MediaGlobal, Jenny Perlman, WRC's Senior Program Officer on Children and Youth, said the findings revealed some surprising areas for women's growth. "We found that the sectors that offered key opportunities were as expected - agriculture, the hospitality industry. However, there were some sectors like construction, auto mechanics, rebuilding, refurbishing, that are usually seen to be more male dominated."
While young women are making headway in male-dominated careers, one of the biggest surprises in the report is a predominantly female luxury: hairdressing.
"WRC has seen this sector rise up post-conflict in other areas and there's just no market for it. So to see it flourishing was something," said Perlman.
Among southern Sudan's young women, hairdressing has become a way to earn money while making other women look their best. And while it may seem purely aesthetical, hairdressing is a lucrative service. Prices for services can cost up to 200 Sudanese Pounds, or $84.
"It was really surprising to see those numbers," said Perlman. "I mean $84? When we saw the numbers, our first reaction was that the conversion was wrong but we spoke to our consultant working on the report and she said the numbers were absolutely correct."
For most women though, the most practical career path remains agriculture. Over 70 percent of southern Sudan's farmers are female, making women the primary providers of the region's food basket. This is the reason why humanitarian organizations like Women for Women are implementing vocational skill-based programs for women growing produce from the land. The group's large scale farming project in Lake State was launched in 2008 and works with more than 3,000 women teaching them the skills they need to earn income.
Lyric Thompson, Women for Women's Policy Analyst, said the initial reactions from males in the community has changed from hesitation to enthusiasm as the program has brought in sustenance and revenue.
"It's been interesting to hear how the reactions to our staff change as the time goes on," said Thompson. "The first thing we usually hear is 'Why women for women? Why women? Why not men?'"
However, the reception has become much warmer as the communities where Women for Women are partnering with local women begin to see a profit.
"We can see a transition from having that initial conversation and not being able to make much headway, to then having the first produce and harvest and then hearing, 'Bring ten more Women for Women!'" said Thompson. "For these women who have had to import their food in order to eat, being able to farm is like growing money from the ground."
As part of their farming program in Lake State, Women for Women offers skill-based training, as well as classes on health and rights awareness. The goal is to allow women to be able to become not only earners but empowered.
"For many of these women, being in a classroom with other women can foster a psycho-social benefit. It stimulates what many women who have survived war do not have which is a safety net," said Thompson.
Attempting to teach civic responsibility alongside economic survival has proved a difficult task in a country that is prone to streaks of violence. During Sudan's nationwide elections back in April, Thompson said that security concerns forced the program to halt operations.
"Exercising one's right to vote is a tremendous part of our advocacy and it is a significant part of our curriculum. We want women to see voting as the right to advocate for themselves and the group, but the reality is that in the last go-round the security deteriorated quickly," said Thompson. "It wasn't safe for us to meet anymore and we had to close up shop."
The most recent fighting stems from the 2003 uprising of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) against the government. The groups' fighting with Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, has lead to one of the deadliest chapters in the countries long history of internal strife. Both rebels and civilians alike have found themselves targets of rapes, kidnappings and brutal torture and killing sprees.
Many have accused the Sudanese government of using the militia to quell the rebellion, claims the country's President Omar al-Bashir has denied. This July, the International Crimes Court added genocide to their charges against Bashir and senior members of his government
Though there have been periods of relative calm since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, the violence in southern Sudan has gotten worse in the past year. With little more than 100 days before the January 2011 referendum vote, the UN and humanitarian groups have reported the security situation continues to decline.
Since the start of this month, separate clashes have left more than 100 civilians dead have underscored many officials' fears that peace deal is unraveling. On Wednesday, UN-appointed human rights expert, Chande Othman to called the government to launch investigations into the incidents.
Many, including US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration, have expressed hope that next week's meeting between President Obama and Sudanese officials will help to put more public attention on the upcoming elections. Perlman says it will be imperative for the international community to remember southern Sudan's youth.
"Ultimately, the hands of southern Sudan's youth are going to be where the responsibilities are going to lie in terms of rebuilding the country," said Perlman.
As part of its recommendations, WRC says that the needs of the country's youth need to be given their own consideration. Perlman said southern Sudanese young women must be recognized as a specific group and given specific attention.
"In terms of international community, youth have seldom been addressed for their particular need. So in the past, many young women have either been grouped with programs meant for children or tagged on to programs meant for adults," said Perlman.
As the security worsens in Sudan, the violence threatens not only the right to vote but the right to survive.
"While there has been a window of opportunity, it is the most dangerous it has been in years," said Thompson. "We can stress on civilian rights and engaging women to vote, but there are some dangerous realities that we cannot afford to forget."
Though their childhoods have been mired in violence, in a few short months, southern Sudan's young women may see their country gain its independence. But as a peaceful future for the region remains uncertain, so does the futures of its young women.
"For young women, we always look to train them for what opportunities are available," said Perlman. "But a lot of the populations we're looking at are very fluid and they move depending on where they can find safety, so there is a need to look at transferable fields."
No one can ensure that the peace will not fall apart and plunge the country back into the depths of war. But for many of the young women living in the midst of this instability, learning the skills needed to work may provide them with one sure thing.