SSIWEL: Southern Sudan women's group elects new board, honors late Mary Bassiouni at U.S. conference

From left to right are Dr. David Bassiouni, Ms. Sunday Taabu, Ms. Christine Ross, and Ms. Rose Michael. (Photo by Joseph Deng Garang/NSV)

(OMAHA, Nebraska NSV) – Ms. Sunday Taabu is not your average South Sudanese woman living in the Diaspora with just hopes for her country. This Southern Sudanese woman has, with a big heart, taken on a national, generation-old battle against illiteracy and all sorts of gender inequity facing her marginalized peers and she has created an organization to tackle just that.

Ms. Taabu is the Founder and CEO of South Sudan Institute for Women’s Education and Leadership (SSIWEL), a young nonprofit organization whose vision attracted women from across the United States. The participants descended on Cornhusker State for a two-day conference over the weekend, during which speakers poured passion into their speeches, culminating in an evening of election where Christine Ross became the new president of SSIWEL.

Ms. Taabu opened the conference by highlighting the tremendous suffering faced by all women back home.

She described the young Institute as a family: “Our people need us; the need is great,” she said, but the “laborers are few.”

The United Nations has repeatedly put the statistics on illiteracy among Sudanese women at an alarming rate of 95%.

It is for this reason and some other ones like preparing women as future leaders that SSIWEl is armed with a vision “to support literacy initiative in Southern Sudan and other areas in order to create an academic environment to improve social and economic status of women.”

That vision begins with a goal of building “three learning centers in Juba, Wau and Malakal,’’ all for serving women in the South and other marginalized areas.

Hours before accepting her new role as the president of SSIWEL, Ms. Ross, who was the Director of Health before the old office was dissolved, put into perspective the somewhat burdensome roles the society has ascribed them.

“Every woman fights a battle within herself,” she said, adding that the bar of expectation, in which our society expects a woman to do things in a certain way, has created uneasiness and left huge “scars on us.”

Ms. Ross talked about the great level of energy that women have. “You have energy and let it shine with SSIWEL,” she eloquently said.

She encouraged both young and not so young women to get involved. "We the women can change Sudan," she stressed. Her message to men who were in attendance was: "go back and encourage your wives to join this" (SSIWEL membership).

Paying homage

Mary Nura Bassiouni when she was giving a speech at Advocate International Conference in San Antonio in 1999

Then came the second part of the evening, which was devoted to the International Women’s Day, a March 8th day that marks annual celebration of women achievements in spheres of political, economic and social life across the world

And SSIWEL being women organization devoted this momentous part of their event in honor of one of their own: the late Mary Nura Bassiouni, who died of cancer in August 2008.

Her tribute, which The New Sudan Vision had the privilege of publishing in March, was read to a thunderous standing ovation upon completion.

The late Mary Bassiouni was survived by two sons, Emile and David Jr, and daughter, Aida and husband Dr. David S. Bassiouni who later was on hand as the keynote speaker for the conference.

Following the tribute, Aida shared a poignant reading of her personal testament. Ms. Aida spoke movingly not only about the special daughter- mother relationship but also about how that same bonding permeates the entire family.

My mother’s ability to care for us was “legendary,” she said with pride while holding back tears. “I’m my mother’s daughter.”

Ms. Aida, with David Jr. standing behind her, personalized the woman many have come to see as the iconic figure known for blazing many trails whether in banking, politics or advocacy for women causes in Sudan and around the world.

Aida said their mother “always remained true to her conviction” and watching her up close has given her and her brothers some compass to navigate the world in her absence—a world late Mary Bassiouni used to share with her children in her favorite quote “ what will happen when I’m no longer around you.”

Their late mother taught them the importance of cultural values of hardwork rooted in both South Sudanese traditions and the Catholic faith. She lived those values out until her last breath.

Keynote address

This pivotal part of the evening was keynoted by Dr. David Bassiouni, a veterinary doctor by profession, who served as Director General, Minister of Agriculture in the regional government of Southern Sudan before joining the United Nations in 1984.

His tenure in the UN has included working for the UNICEF in 7 countries, including serving as the first Humanitarian Coordinator in whole United Nations system.

Dr. Bassiouni thanked SSIWEL for reading the biography of his late wife, noting that he was not going to talk any better about her than what was said in the tribute and the testimony read by his daughter Aida.

He instead focused his address on the importance of women to society and civilizations, saying “women have unique physiological, psychological and creativity” that allows them to be the indispensible part of our human fabric.

Many a societal obstacles and challenges have prevented women to maximize their contributions. The challenge is a global one and humanity continues to wrestle with it. Dr.Bassiouni capitalized on his immense experience in talking about great contributions and advances made by women; some by 20 women who he saw in the UN, some by women heads of state.

Dr. Bassiouni returned to remind the audience about challenges that abound, including for the new SSIWEL—the organization he has pledged the foundational support of his family for it is what his late wife would have loved to be a part of.

Fundraising and a call to action

As things were winding down, the entertainment was picking up. Some young women and young girls performed the Acholi dance, and the crowd was ecstatic.

Then came an equally touchy part of the evening when Ms. Rose Michael, a mother of three, played a role of a typical Southern Sudanese mother carrying a child on her back, juggling a bundle of fire in her arm and a pail or a bucket of water on her head.

No sooner had she unloaded the three than the crowd ran to its generous feet, throwing into the bucket on the floor personal contributions--contribution that goes toward funding the new organization.

While people were at it, Ms. Rose took a microphone and began narrating the hardships faced by our mothers back home. “I don’t want our daughters and mothers to go through this. We are a force to change, go back and implement it,” she said.

When The New Sudan Vision asked Ms. Rose after the emotional performance, she said idea was her “own idea.”

“There are women back home that are still walking long distances, with children on their backs, fetching water and firewood,” she said. “That is painful.”

“I felt like I sent a message out there,” she said. She wants to remind all young girls who are taking education for granted, who are dropping out of schools about “the suffering women have gone through.”

Ms. Rose was elected to the new board of SSIWEL.

Celebrating this milestone for women

The New Sudan Vision caught up with some members to ask for their personal reactions right before and after the event. Sholock Roup, a first year chemistry student at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, said she was “happy” about the whole experience. She accepted new position as the Secretary General of SSIWEL and said will apply her energy to advance the mission of the organization.

We asked Morris Yale, a wounded veteran of the SPLA from Blue Nile, who came from Salt Lake City, Utah to attend the event. “This is new to me. I have not been in such occasion before, I ‘m really happy,” he said.

He said the “celebration of Women’s Day is a major step. “Our women need to be supported to join leadership, and be educators to help young girls with managing their futures.”

After a long day of exciting programming, SSIWEL President Christine Ross reminded women to go and be advocates on behalf of the organization, saying “let’s make a chance for once.” You gotta go to the ground,” she said.

The SSIWEL Founder and CEO, Ms. Sunday Taabu thanked everyone for standing with her and in solidarity with ”our sisters back home," concluding: “thank you, thank you, and thank you.”

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