Advocating for women in a place of conflict

Two photos: two women about to shake hands; portrait of Rita M. Lopidia (U.S. Institute of Peace)
Left: Rita M. Lopidia (right) meets with the U.N.'s Under-Secretary-General Pramila Patten before addressing a U.N. Security Council meeting on sexual violence in conflict. Right: Rita M. Lopidia, co-founder and executive director, Eve Organization for Women Development. (U.S. Institute of Peace)

As a child in what is now South Sudan, Rita M. Lopidia learned that women are usually the first victims of political conflict.

The U.S. Institute of Peace awarded Lopidia, executive director and co-founder of the Eve Organization for Women Development, its inaugural 2020 Women Building Peace Award.

Lopidia’s family fled the city of Juba in the 1990s, when she was in primary school and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army was bombing the city. When her family moved to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, Lopidia said, others viewed her, an internally displaced person and a female, as a second-class citizen.

She has dedicated herself to peace and gender equality in her home country despite decades of intense conflict there.

“The work we do [with] the Eve Organization in South Sudan is to ensure that women have the space to contribute in decision making and women have the opportunity to contribute to building this nation into a country that is stable and peaceful,” she said.

After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, Lopidia hoped conditions would improve for women. However, women still cannot obtain loans or get adequate maternal care, she said.

Her organization works with community leaders to provide support for women and protection against sexual violence. The organization encouraged women to vote during the 2010 elections in Sudan and the 2011 referendum on South Sudan’s independence.

“If you look at the results of the referendum, the number of women who voted was really high,” Lopidia said. “South Sudan became a sovereign state because women came out in numbers and voted.”

She fled to Uganda in 2016 after receiving death threats for her activism and established a regional branch of the Eve Organization there.

Woman signing agreement as men stand behind her (Institute of Peace)
Rita Lopidia, a peace and gender rights advocate in South Sudan, signs a declaration of principles during the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s peace process for South Sudan in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (U.S. Institute of Peace)

Lopidia led a coalition of organizations to champion women’s participation in the 2018 revitalized peace agreement in South Sudan.

“I am so inspired by [Lopidia’s] efforts to empower women to be meaningful participants in the South Sudanese peace process,” said U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley E. Currie. The ambassador added, “Her leadership is building a more peaceful future for all of us.”

When women are included in the peace process, an agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“Ms. Lopidia’s achievements reinforce what data have long shown: to build a more peaceful world, give women a seat at the table,” said Marcia Carlucci, co-chair of the U.S. Institute’s Women Building Peace Council. “As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to exacerbate violent conflict globally, lifting up the importance of women peacebuilders remains vital.”

The award recognizes the often invisible, yet valuable, role women are playing in peace and conflict prevention. Lopidia was one of 10 finalists.