Ringed by six countries – Ethiopia, Sudan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Kenya – landlocked South Sudan lies in northeastern Africa.
Few are aware the country is rich in flora and fauna, including savannas, swampland, rainforests and wildlife.
But it has not been smooth sailing for South Sudan for many years now. The country has plunged into the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Plagued with many challenges for more than a decade – starting with the war for independence and then dragged down by a civil war, it now faces protracted uncertainty.
South Sudan achieved independence on 9 July 2011, becoming the world’s newest nation, after 99% of the people voted for independence from the Republic of Sudan in a referendum.
Unfortunately, just two years after independence, South Sudan was plunged into a civil war that killed thousands and displaced many from their homes. Famine ensued following this calamity.
The country faces many challenges: abject poverty, illiteracy, inferior infrastructure, security problems, a lack of good governance and sexual violence towards young girls.
South Sudan ranks among the poorest countries in the world. According to the World Bank, about 82% of the people are classified as poor, with unemployment hovering around 13%.
The country squandered opportunities to uplift the living standards of its 12 million people due to incessant internal strife. The political landscape remains precarious.
Despite these hard times, a flicker of joy has spread across South Sudan. Women and girls here have lifted the spirits of the people are moving up a level in football. Many supporters, fired by their passion for the game, have put aside their political and ideological differences. Football has found a way to unite the people.
South Sudan joined football’s world governing body Fifa back in 2012 as its 209th member. The popularity of women’s football has sparked national enthusiasm.
Realising the positive change it could bring about, the South Sudan Football Association (SSFA) launched Stars Unite last year. This is a four-year programme to build a formidable women’s team and a league of eight teams from each region with players aged from 18 to 27.
Stars Unite aims to raise women playing the game by 70%. Its agenda includes training women as coaches, referees, players and administrators through women-only courses. The programme also aims to promote the national team’s participation in international competitions and to develop the women’s game.
Leading the women’s charge is national women’s team captain, Amy Lasu Luate. A once unfamiliar name, Amy has emerged as a promising player. She led the national women’s team at the East and Central African Football Association (Cecafa) tournament in Tanzania in 2019.
Amy, who also captains the Juba Super Stars, has come a long way from the days when a career in football was considered inconceivable for a woman in South Sudan. Many thought that women should stick handling household chores and taking care of the family, while the chauvinistic men were free to pursue whatever they liked.
But people’s attitude towards women’s football has changed – thanks to Amy’s rise to prominence – even if some still cling to the belief that a woman’s place is at home.
The accolades followed. Amy became the first woman to be selected as a player ambassador by the SSFA for women’s football in South Sudan. She hopes to have a programme where women footballers can display their talents nationally and internationally.
Recognising her stature, the Confederation of African Football recently invited Amy to draw the lots for the women’s competitions. She is now optimistic that more such opportunities lie in wait for her.
Captain Amy also has a dream. She hopes to one day play for the Olympic Lyon women’s team in France.
Born in Central Equatoria, South Sudan, Amy, 26, spent her childhood years in Nairobi, where she developed a passion for football when she was seven. Her father, Lasu Lauya, was a well-known player with the Malakia Football Club in the capital, Juba.
Amy’s only regret is that her late father, who was proud of her, never had the chance to watch her play. She is thankful to her mother for being so supportive: it was she who enrolled her at the football academy and journeyed with her.
Football for women and girls flourished as it is linked to equal human rights. The current peace agreement has gender provisions, including a quota for women’s representation of at least 35% in all areas. But not all who signed it are completely committed. Women still experience disproportionate violence and unequal pay.
Still, the spectators’ enthusiasm for the women’s game is infectious. Their thunderous cheers each time a goal is scored lifts the players’ morale. The exhilaration brings pride to the players’ families, who see their daughters and siblings excelling in the sport.
South Sudan’s foray into women’s football may seem like a small step, but it brings immense joy to the people here, many of whom struggle to eke out a living – a silver lining to the dark clouds over the nation.