The faces behind the face masks

How women trained by the World Food Programme are helping fight coronavirus in South Sudan

Story by Tomson Phiri and Saddal Diab

Women are at the forefront of South Sudan’s COVID-19 response. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

Coronavirus has devastated the global economy and decimated livelihoods across the globe. It is no different in South Sudan, where times have been tough for quite some time. The economy was already on life-support before the pandemic began.

Hard times

A peace deal signed in September 2018 ushered relative calm but did little to significantly boost the economy. The situation has been made worse by restrictions in movement, trade and border closures imposed by the government in late March in a move to limit the spread of the virus. Despite the government re-opening the country in early May, businesses are expected to take sometime to fully recover, if at all. But there is a glimmer of hope as one local enterprise is helping save both lives and jobs.

Creating jobs

WFP has purchased over 10,000 face masks from WAO. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

At its headquarters in Munuki, a dense suburb in the capital Juba, the sound of sewing machines fills the air. The aptly-named Women’s Advancement Organization (WAO) is doing just that — advancing women. Founded in 2012, WAO seeks to empower women socially and economically while reducing poverty.

It’s latest initiative of producing face masks, employs mostly single mothers. Some of the women have already received training in other skills under WFP’s Juba Urban Programme but were made redundant by COVID-19.

“I wanted to help vulnerable women and my country by stimulating local production,” says Susan Pascale Okok, WAO’s Executive Director. “With the help of community leaders we identified vulnerable women we could employ.”

The face masks comply with WHO and South Sudan Ministry of Health standards. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

The organization produces an average of 1,000 face masks per day. The masks, which are ventilated complete with a double-layer and made of cotton fabric trade at US$ 3 each. Business is brisk. WFP has bought more than 10,000 face masks for its staff and contractors. Other UN agencies and private sector companies are also placing orders.

The women behind the face masks

Susan Okok

Executive Director Susan Okok holds a degree in Social Work. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

Susan Okok is a born fighter. Plucked out of school and forced into marriage at 17 to an abusive husband, she fled and found refuge in Uganda. While there, she witnessed first-hand the care and dedication of social workers. And so her desire to be an agent of change was born. She enrolled for a college degree in Social Work and Social Administration. Women’s empowerment is her first love.

Nalia Peter

Naila Peter was previously trained in tailoring by WAO. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

Naila Peter, 35, is the sole provider for her family. She holds a degree in Human Resource Management, but jobs are scarce. She has been a tailor to eke out a living.

“I already knew how to make masks when I arrived last week,” she says. Given her skills, she churns out an impressive 70 masks per day. Dealing with COVID-19 has been tough for Naila.

“Coronavirus has affected me in many ways,” she says. “I have suffered a lot due to quarantine and the closure of markets.”

For now, she is grateful that she can put food on her family’s table.

“If it wasn’t for this initiative, I would just be sitting at home and struggling.”

Mirembe Here

Mirembe is a trained tailor. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

Her name means peace in the Luganda language spoken across much of Uganda. She is among the 13 female tailors employed by WAO after the COVID-19 response.

“It is not easy as a single mother. I was just staying at home with no one to help me,” says the 48-year-old mother of three. She has been a tailor since 1999. Following the death of her parents, she was unable to complete her education but was fortunate enough to enroll for a tailoring course at a Vocational Training Centre.

“Life is ok now. But I hope things go back to normal and I can go back to my own tailoring business.”

Wilma Matthew

Wilma Matthew supports 9 children with the income she gets from WAO. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

Wilma Matthew, 48, is the sole provider for her nine children. She is a tailor by trade. “I was unable to pursue an education due to poverty,” she says.

She learnt about the initiative from a friend and immediately joined.

“Coronavirus has caused a lot of problems. The most difficult thing has been the closure of markets and schools. Thankfully, this initiative is helping me feed my children and provide medicine for them,” she says.

Keeping everyone safe

WAO strives to keep COVID-19 at bay even at its base. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

The organisation’s priority is not only to keep the country safe but its staff as well. Inside the premises, staff observe social distancing and work stations are spaced two metres apart to limit the risk of infection.

“We have also put in place health mitigation measures including hand-washing stations and everyone wears a face mask,” says Susan.

Hope for the future

WAO hopes to transition to electric sewing machines soon. Photo: WFP/Saddal Diab

No one knows when the pandemic will finally be over, but the women already have big plans for their future. On its part, WAO hopes to expand into a small factory of 40 workers, manufacturing protective clothing, school uniforms and re-usable sanitary pads.

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