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YALI Voices Podcast: Dina Cirillo on Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls in South Sudan
April 14, 2020

“It’s a matter of you are a woman in my country,” shares Dina Peter Cirillo from South Sudan, “which is why I will always fight for a woman.”

Dina Cirillo and Sonnie Lawrence standing
Dina Cirillo, left, and Sonnie Lawrence at the Presidential Precinct in Charlottesville, Virginia (Courtesy of U.S. Department of State)

In this YALI Voices podcast, Dina is joined by YALI Network member and talk show host Sonnie Lawrence. The founder of Agents of Positive Change and host of Career Talk on the Voice of Hope Radio 100.7 FM, Sonnie is a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow from Liberia.

Today Dina and Sonnie will be discussing Dina’s journey to empower young leaders by investing in women and girls for gender parity in South Sudan.

A 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, Dina Peter Cirillo is a defense attorney based in Juba. She has worked extensively in providing pro bono services to women who have suffered from injustice, unfair prosecution, torture and civil law violation. Dina also leads a committee that focuses on girl child education.

Dina’s passion stems from her youth experiences as a member of a Sudanese minority and an internationally displaced person. “I grew up in a difficult circumstance that make me strong,” Dina explains. “Even if there are difficulties in life, sometimes good things can happen out of it.”

Dina leads the girl child committee, where she focuses on girls’ education, facilitates the distribution of sanitary pads, and provides inspirational talks to encourage girls’ performance and persistence in school attendance.

Dina believes that starting the conversation and creating inclusive spaces for women and young leaders to gather are powerful and can facilitate change.

She encourages other young leaders to be ambitious, particularly if they have a vision for their communities: “Sometimes you will not see the change immediately,” Dina explains, “but one day, you will see that you have really made something.”

Listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below to find out how Dina is empowering women by providing legal services, facilitating dialogue around gender disparities, and increasing girls’ access to education.





♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

SONNIE CHRISTINE LAWRENCE: Hello, young African leaders. Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, the home for the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. My name is Sonnie Christine Lawrence. I’m a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow from Liberia. I attended the Civic Leadership Institute at the Presidential Precinct in Virginia. Thank you for joining us.

I am the founder and executive director of Agents of Positive Change, a nongovernmental organization that helps to educate young people into reading and comprehension programs. I’m also a talk show host for a radio program called Career Talk. Career Talk is a 45-minute radio show that motivates, encourages and inspires young people about career opportunities that are available for them.

I’m joined today by another Mandela Washington Fellow, Dina Cirillo, from Juba, South Sudan. Dina is a lawyer who is passionate about giving back to her society, her particular interest in working with women and girls who have suffered injustice, unfair prosecution, torture and civil law violations. Dina also leads a committee that focuses on girl child education and works to encourage girls to attend and do well in school.

Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit YALI.state.gov to stay up to date with all things YALI. Welcome, Dina.

DINA CIRILLO: Thank you, Sonnie.

SONNIE: Can you kindly tell us about yourself? What was it like growing up in South Sudan?

DINA: My name is Dina Cirillo. I’m a lawyer by profession now. I provide pro bono legal aid for women and girls, and also I’m advocating for girl education and to end girl child marriage in South Sudan.

Growing back in Sudan, because now I’m from South Sudan, growing back in Sudan was a bit difficult because I was an IDP, internal displaced person, because of war in my country. Then my family has to move from south to north of Sudan. Yeah, it was difficult for me because it was, though I was young, but it was just a different environment.

It’s where, like, you are discriminated because maybe you are a girl and also because of your color, because of the religion, like there’s a lot of difficulties. But also, in fact, I would say also there is good thing out of this, that, like I become educated because I’m sure, like if I was still in South Sudan and during the war and everything, I would not get a chance to get education, so there is also advantage and disadvantage of me being an internal displaced person.

SONNIE: I’m really sorry for such an experience that you have to go through with the issue of war, and I know it must be really something really devastating for you, but I’m grateful for the work that you’re doing to provide legal service for women in South Sudan. Can you kindly tell us who were your influences as you’re growing back? Who or what made the biggest impact in your life?

And I know it’s not a really easy thing to kind of like decide from the background that you’re from to kind of like figure out what is it that you want to do, but if you can just tell us those factors or those influences that actually made you to decide or to make the decision of providing legal aid for women in your country. Who actually made the biggest impact in your life?

DINA: My father is the one who made the biggest influence in my life, because he always encouraged me when I was growing up, and I was seeing the leader in him because he used to be one of the freedom fighters. He fought against a lot of thing in that country. And I grew up always like, when I’m young, I’m like, I want to be like my father. I want to be a soldier because I’m seeing him in the uniform.

But I grew up in a difficult circumstance that make me strong, and now, women who are suffering, for me, I think I’m an example for them because I’ve been through a lot, and I achieved things. Like some of them didn’t get a chance to education. Because of war, they couldn’t get a chance to move from South to North. They just end up in South Sudan, and most of women there are not educated. And I just wanted to send them a message like, even if there are difficulties in life, sometimes good things can happen out of it.

I still will fight for them so that they can stand up, so that they can be strong. And also I’m doing this so that they can empower other women because I believe they are not educated, but in this society, everyone can help each other through a different way. Like maybe you now in your field, you can do something, you can help others through your field, your job. And how also, because also we have this tribalism a lot in our country, if I help her, I’m sending also a message because I’m not her relative. I helped her. I didn’t take any money from her. She will wonder, “Who is she? Why is she doing this to me?”


SONNIE: What really led you to do the work that you are doing? Was it the fact that you felt that there is a need, or was it just trying to follow what other women after you sort of were doing? Really, if you can just clearly explain what really led you to what you’re doing currently.

DINA: On my last year of the university, I have to do my research in prison, which was totally a different topic, and I went to, I went inside the prison. And all of a sudden, I start meeting some, I saw kids running around inside the prison. Then I have to ask, what are those kids doing here? It’s like, they’re here because their mother is here in the prison. Some of them been born in the prison.

But also after hearing their story that those kids know that the prison is their home, they’ve never seen outside, so even I changed my topic of research into, like, women in prison with their children. Then I came again to the prison. I start to interview the women, know their stories. And then some of them been telling me like, she’s there for three years just because she stole a mobile phone. And I can’t do nothing because I was still a student. Since then, I make my mind like, if I graduate, I got my license, those type of people I can help because she’s inside there three years just because of a mobile phone.But she’s staying there because she doesn’t know her rights, because she’s a woman. And also in my country, society can abandon you totally if you did a small crime.

SONNIE: OK, so, do you also kind of like plead for your client? Like, those women’s files that you take to the court, do you, like, plead on their behalf or it’s just —

DINA: Yes.


DINA: Yes. I present them in court, like recently they released like 15, yeah, 15 women. And I’m trying to bring my colleagues, also the ladies, lawyers, female lawyers, if they can help me in this, because the pro bono in my country, it’s a bit not everyone wants to do such a thing because it’s difficult if like, all of us, we are young, and we are like seeing this is how our career want to build up. Like, always we think about money, like I want to do this because of money. So not everyone can offer something free.

That’s why I say also it’s related maybe, it has to come from your heart, like really I want to do this job for these people, yeah, not everyone. That’s why it’s a bit difficult and like a slow process, yeah.


SONNIE: OK, so, can you kindly tell us where your motivation came from when it comes to providing these legal services? What actually motivated you as a young person who have, you know, a really good future to offer free services to women and those, what really did you get your motivation from?

DINA: My background as I grew up in Sudan, like, there is a lot of thing that a person cannot accept, but I accept it because I already found myself there. Like my family, they cannot take us beyond some, like, we have some South Sudanese, maybe they’re in America, different country in the world, but you couldn’t go, so we just be like we stayed in Sudan, facing a lot of things, you know, like when you feel like you are in your country but you are not part of that country because maybe they discriminate you because of your skin color, because of your culture and your religion.

Because Northern Sudan, people are Muslim, so sometimes it’s difficult for them to accept you. Even sometimes you will not have friends because they’re, maybe if you have an Arab friend, the parents will say, “Don’t move with her. She’s a slave.” Like from homes, they’re telling them things and they’re growing with it. And also from home, they’re telling us like, “Those people, they killed you in South Sudan, in Juba. Don’t interact with them.” Yeah, so this is how we grew up, so it’s difficult.

And also, I remember the time I was, I decided to do law, like eight months you have to do law in Sharia Islamic, this is what I do. Like, I studied law in Sharia Islamic. I didn’t complain, but then something just, because I want to be a lawyer, I have to pass by that, so I did like — or else if you don’t want, you have to shift to another college, take another course. But also like, when I’m growing up, just like, I want to be a lawyer. I don’t know what lawyers are doing. All I know, like, they protect others.

I concentrate on women because like, in my society, my culture mostly believe that women, we are weak. No one helps us. If we didn’t help ourself, we would not get like —. A man cannot protect us in my country. A man cannot say like, let me present her because she’s a woman because always you are a woman, you are wrong. Even me, myself, I’m a lawyer. Sometimes their relatives will not bring their case to me. They will look for a male lawyer in the family, they will give them the case.

I don’t know whether they think like I’m not qualified, but I realized, like, because I’m a woman, they think if I go to the court to represent them, maybe I will lose the case, though sometimes my marks at the school were higher than that relative lawyer, see? So, it’s a matter of you are a woman in that country, that’s why I will always fight for a woman. I have nothing to do with men. They’re strong. You know, they can do (laughs), they can work theirselves out, but I care about women. Even if I can help one, that means something for me.

SONNIE: So, how do you feel when you’re kind of like, if a client will not come to you, they feel that because you’re a woman, let me go to a man. I mean, how does that make you feel? Does it make you feel kind of intimidated or that you’re not skilled enough or, really how, really do you feel if such happened?

DINA: OK, um, I feel bad. I feel bad because when I was studying law, I know, like, I will represent anyone who comes to my office. And like having office, there’s no client. That means there is no business. Yeah, so, maybe a client will come and ask you something, and then after that, will just never show up because she’s a woman. Then the next day, you see her with my male colleague. That means there is something. So, that means also, let me say in term of my family, like there is no support. They are not supporting you.

Yeah, if now I have my relative, she’s a doctor or he’s a doctor, I will go to support, yeah? If I’m sick, I will not say like, I’m not going to, for example, male doctor or something, or I’m not going to Sonnie because she is, yeah. People should support each other. I’m sure, like, if my family, they brought for me a case, I will be proud, like really they want to lift me up as a woman. And also by having different cases, you will learn a lot about practicing. You will have a lot of experience.

But now, some people will come, and some people will withdraw that you will not be perfect in one of the fields, and of course you are not getting the work of that, yeah. And also sometimes even at offices, when you go, they see you are a woman, they don’t — yeah, mostly, yeah. That’s why I advise, like, most of the girls now from that, provide them with the sanitary pad, I advise them to try their best to get their education, even if up to senior, at least just have a basic, just to write and read instead of just going and get married.

Then like thinking that when you get married, you’ll get rich or you’ll get money or something. You’ll not get those things, apart from problems, because you don’t have basic. Even if now you get married, you don’t know how to read even the medicine for the baby. You will not notice how many spoon you want to give.

Every month, me and some of my colleagues and friends from different fields, most of them are not lawyers. We’re just only two lawyers, and the rest are engineers, doctors. Like, we’ll decide like this month, everyone, can you bring two sanitary pads for me? Mostly it’s helping them during birthdays. Like, what gifts do you want? I say, get for me two sanitary pads, everyone. Then you end up with a bunch of sanitary. Then like, OK, let’s go to the orphanage. Then you distribute the sanitary pad. You explain to them how to be, like, healthy.

You talk to them about education. There is a time we did an initiative like on our lunchtime from workplace, all of us, we gathered at one of the schools. We told the principal, like, we want to talk to the ladies, to the girls, young girls at this school. Then we start advising them, interacting with them. Even they’re asking, are you sure you’re a lawyer? Are you sure you’re a doctor? How did you make it? But we are not there just to advise alone. We want them to see the example on us.

Most of us who used to be IDPs in Khartoum because of war, we want to tell them, like, not because of war or maybe life become difficult, then you drop the school, you go and get married. But you can fight. You can be anything you want to be. Now look, we have engineers, we have doctors, we have ITs, we have, like, then they start asking a lot of questions that pique interest, so I’m sure when they go back, it’s like, “Ah, I want to be like that lady. I want to be a doctor because she said it’s not difficult. I can make it.”

So, when she’s growing up, she’s growing up with that encouragement, like I can be like her.


SONNIE: Thank you so much for that great job you’re doing, and your story, I think it speaks a lot where you’re from and show a clearer picture of what is there to be seen. So, kindly if you can, if you might, give some instances of areas that you, areas that you have worked on, I mean, where you were before and how you’ve been able to work on yourself to be the leader that you are right now. Sometimes it’s important to sort of look back at what you were before and then where you are now. You gave a really clear picture for, for those that are going to follow you.

So, if you can just tell us a bit about where you were before when it comes to things you did that you feel that were not, you know, contributive enough for your growth and development and things that you’ve done now to make you to be a better leader, so if you can tell us a bit about that.

DINA: OK, actually I’ve been doing a lot of things recently, like before coming for the fellowship, I came with an initiative in my village. To tell, it was difficult because they believe, like, girls should be married. Yeah, maybe if you are 12, if you are 13, they don’t care.

Like, so, I went back to the village — it’s not far from where I’m staying — to talk to them, to the girls. And, like, I have to talk to them in my mother tongue, which I’m not good in it, because if you are talking in Arabic, they will not pay attention on what you’re saying.

Then I start like trying my best to learn my language so that I can tell them exactly that I’m also from this village and now I’m a lawyer, I’m doing this and this, and I’m educated, like I’m independent. Yeah, so, if you guys can try to push yourself a bit in this issue of education, though people wasn’t happy with that, especially fathers, because we are under the tree, and they think like I’m coming to mislead their girls.

SONNIE: Do you kind of bring them together in a forum where you talk to them?

DINA: Yes.

SONNIE: How is it like? Is it regularly? Are there schedules for you to meet them to educate them about girl child education? Because back there in Liberia, we do have some kind of culture and some traditional people who believe that girls should not be in school, even though our government, I mean, we have policy that demands that every girl or boy should be in school. But there are some tradition people, you know, traditional practices, that are, you know, kind of being common in Liberia, so back home, in Sudan, I’m sure that there are similar cases. So, do you gather the girls together on, is it a monthly, weekly, or how is the program [inaudible]?

DINA: OK, actually, let me say, like, I don’t plan for it. Just I will say, today I am going to the village because it’s just some hour or two-hour drive. I go to the village just to spend the time as usual with some relative, but then I try to make friends with the girls, yeah, because for them, I’m new in that village because I grew up in Khartoum. They don’t count me as one of them. So I’m coming to know them and know my relative, yeah. So, when I establish the friendship, immediately she will be safe when I’m talking to her, like, “Ah, she’s my friend.”

But I will start sending her these messages because I’m her friend, but not like because I’m coming to do workshop on them or mislead them. Yeah, because if I say, “Come, let’s gather under this tree today, I want to tell you this,” no one would show up because they don’t know me and also no one wants to listen. Like, for them, they are women are the one who’s farming, doing anything. Men are sitting under the tree, so she will see like, instead of coming, sitting under the tree to listen to her, let me go and farm or let me go and do something else productive, yeah.

But then sometimes you have to come just to someone’s house, yeah. Like, “Hey, I came to say hi to you.” Then you start talking, like conversation, then you bring some stories, you bring — then you’ve sent your message through that thing. It doesn’t have to be formula because no one will listen to you, yeah. And whenever you want to do gathering, big gathering, you have to go and ask the chief. And then if the chief notice like you are coming to mislead people, they will not be happy with you, to cause you also problems.

SONNIE: OK, so, what are the age range of those ladies who you somehow talk to, and is there a way to like, let the chief know that this is an educational forum and not something that’s going to mislead the girls but actually to motivate them that since I’m a lawyer, I would like to have more lawyers come from my kind of village and more girls to be educated who can be better leaders? I mean, is there any way that you have been able to work in that direction?

DINA: Yeah, like but then not through the chief, through the girls themselves so that they can fight for themselves. The chief cannot fight for them because the chief is just waiting there. There is marriage and getting cow or getting a sheep. He doesn’t care about, yeah, even if there are parents, I cannot go and tell them, like, I want your girl to be this and this. But it’s you to tell like, “Sonnie, I want, I’m doing this,” like sometimes they ask me, “Where you are, Dee, what are you doing at the town there? Are you married?” I will say, “I am not married. I am working.” They’re like, “Ah! And what’s your job?”

I’m like, “I’m a lawyer.” “Can a woman be a lawyer? How can you stand in front of the judge like in front of, are you defending people who can’t —.” Like, they’re asking. The questions are coming, and then you have to reply, yeah, pique interest. “Is this your car? Are you driving? How can you —?” It’s just questions. Like, “Ah, I’m driving. You, also, you can drive. You also, you can be a lawyer. You can be a judge, even.” There is a young girl, she’s my cousin. I always go to the village, and then like the father has to name her Dina on my name. Then they start calling her in Arabic, like muham is like lawyer.

I call her, “Hey, lawyer, lawyer.” So now she’s growing, she knows that she’s a lawyer because, OK. Then after a while, I came to the house also after some months later. “Hey, lawyer, how are you? She said, “No, no, I’m not a lawyer. I’m a pilot now.” I say, “Oh, that’s good. I will set like flying free because now I have a pilot,” you see? So, those people, you grow up with something. But even she was telling me she’s a pilot, the mom, I heard her. She say, “Oh, you cannot be,” you see.

Also there are some people who can pull you down. Yeah, but if you get someone to tell you like,”I can fly. Yes, you can fly.” See, they encourage others, yeah.


SONNIE: So, what advice do you have for the YALI Network members, especially those who have idea of change within their communities?

DINA: I will tell them, keep going, yeah. Sometimes you will not see the change immediately, but one day, you will see that you really made something. If they’re a female, I will say, like, move on. You can make a change. You can make a difference. No one in this world can tell you you cannot. Just try by any mean to make something.

SONNIE: All right, so, what can the YALI, I mean, kind of, from your field, those that are working within your field, what advice can you kindly give to them? Lawyers who are also kind of providing similar service that you are providing, what can you say to them to kind of like motivate them, or what kind of advice can you give to them out there?

DINA: I will tell them, let them keep practicing, practice a lot. And then there is some situations sometimes you will feel down, but just, like, try your best because I’m sure they saw a smile on someone’s face that when the judge said, like, “Now you are released,” that’s a smile which is with the world, let me say. Like you can see that difference there. You can see your payback there. You can see the payback from the woman that’s going to tell you thank you. Thank you’s not just a word. It can change your day. It can make your day. So, let them keep going, practicing, and what they are doing, it’s really great they’re doing the same thing. Let them keep moving.

SONNIE: OK, thank you so much, Dina, for having you today and the great work that you’re doing back there for women and girls. It was a really exciting time to be here with you and learn about your work and what you’re doing to inspire young girls out there. And it’s really important as African leaders and especially those of us part of the YALI Network to note that all of our issues in all of our countries are similar and we are all kind of like battling the same challenges, and once we collaborate and we work together, I believe Africa can be more better.


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