In South Sudan, collecting firewood for cooking and selling it in the market is traditionally a role for girls and women. It may sound like a simple task, but it is one of the most dangerous daily activities.
Collecting firewood in the bush exposes girls and women to risks ranging from venomous snakes lurking in the tall grass to sexual and gender-based violence as well as kidnappings and theft by armed groups. Sexual and gender-based violence is a particularly pervasive issue in South Sudan with an estimated two million people affected annually.
For Merry, a single mother and the sole breadwinner in her family, collecting firewood to sell was her only source of income, but it was always a daunting task.
“Every time I planned to go to the forest, I started by praying in my home before leaving while I thought about all the risks I might encounter,” she says.
Determined to find an alternative income to feed her family, Merry attended sessions at the DRC Women and Girls Friendly Space centre in the town of Bentiu in northern South Sudan. The centre, which was set up with support from USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), provides a safe space for women and girls to access information, psychosocial support and management services in cases of gender-based violence.
Based on requests from Merry and other women at the centre, DRC started bread-making tutorials for women who depended on collecting firewood as an income. The basic materials for bread-making, such as flour, yeast, salt, and oil, were provided and ovens to bake the bread.
The women worked collectively to bake bread and sell it from the centre and in the local market. Besides from providing a safer source of income, this was also an opportunity for the women to re-establish peer support networks and spend time outside the home in a space where their safety was ensured and their voices valued.
After six months of working together, the women divided the profit evenly amongst themselves and used it to support their family needs.
Merry decided to invest the money from her bread-making journey in setting up her own bread-making business at home and a small shop that sells bread, salt, dry and cooked okra (a local green vegetable), onion, garlic, eggplant and spices.
The shop has been a success, and she is now able to cover her daily household expenses without having to run the risk of going to the bush to collect firewood each day.
“I was hopeless, but DRC supported me immensely to start my business. I hope DRC continues supporting other vulnerable women as the bread-making is changing the lives of women. I am very grateful for the support I received,” she says.
In Unity State, South Sudan, DRC is supporting women and girls through several similar integrated protection and livelihood activities focused on reducing their exposure and vulnerability to risks of sexual and gender-based violence while collecting firewood, while at the same time supporting the setup of a sustainable income-generating activity.