Dr Emmily Koiti: Surviving South Sudan civil wars

Dr Emmily Koiti, a medical doctor and Executive Director of South Sudanese Women in Medicine. Having experienced South Sudanese civil wars , she has developed passion for not only medicine, but also human rights and gender equality.

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Dr Emmily Koiti was about ten years old the first time I heard a bomb.
  • She enrolled at the University of Juba for a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 2009.
  • Currently, she is the Executive Director of South Sudanese Women in Medicine, an organisation that engages female South Sudanese medical, dental and pharmacy practitioners to save lives.

When war erupts in a country, the disruption that follows takes years to recover from. The history of countries such as North and South Sudan is marred with warfare dating back to the 1980s.

Today, a woman who lived through multiple armed conflict recounts growing up in a war-torn country and how she is contributing to rebuilding and developing modern-day South Sudan.

Dr Emmily Koiti who describes herself as an unconventional medical doctor was born in Kajo Keji, a small town about 120 kilometres Southwest of Juba and near the Uganda border district of Moyo.

“I grew up at the height of war between the North Sudanese government and the South. This was around 1996 and 1997. I remember the first time I heard a bomb. I was about ten years old and had never felt that much terror in my life. That was when I truly go a sense of what war is like,’’ she narrates.

Dr Koiti grew up looking up to her mother who served in Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) as the County Secretary for Women and Child Affairs.

“Due to constant armed conflict, my mother sent me to Moyo in Uganda to study. When I finished my high school education, I returned to Sudan in 2007, two years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement had been signed.

While there was some semblance of peace, my mother advised me to study water engineering.

"My mother believed that she was raising a child to be a citizen who would help the country. Access to water was a huge problem in South Sudan. That is why she believed I should study water engineering although that was not my interest,'' Dr Koiti says.

Her heart was set on medicine as opposed to water engineering.

“As a child, I always wanted to treat sick people. I was, however, always surrounded by male doctors while most women were nurses. Even female pharmacists would be referred to as nurses. It was only when I met a female white doctor while studying in Uganda that I realised women can also be doctors ,’’ she recalls.

It took one of her mother’s colleagues who had taught Dr Koiti in high school, to convince her mother to let her go to medical school through a government scholarship.

She enrolled at the University of Juba for a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 2009. She, however, explains that she lost almost two years due to armed conflict and government austerity measures.

“When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, austerity measures were introduced. That meant the Ministry of Finance reduced funding for public universities. We had to stop learning for a year,’’ Dr Koiti explains.

Immediately after they resumed learning, an inter-communal conflict erupted amongst students from different ethnic groups.

 “There is a way people ethnically settle in Juba. You should not be surprised to find an entire neighbourhood occupied by one ethnic group. This was also how the hostels were occupied at the university and whenever a fight would erupt between two students from different ethnic groups, all other students would join in,’’ she says regarding what triggered the conflict.

Dr Koiti adds that most students at the campus were armed with guns.

“At the time, it was estimated that there were two million guns in South Sudan and most of them were owned by civilians. Students too, had guns at the university. This led to a lot of gun violence at the university.’’

Youth representative

By the time the armed forces contained the situation, a year had lapsed. Instead of completing her studies in 2014, she graduated in 2016.

“During that time, I realised that it is one thing to gain independence but completely another to have a functional state. We (South Sudan) are still trying to establish functional institutions. I am not saying we are dysfunctional but we have a lot of work to do. I knew then that I cannot be a conventional doctor. I could not limit myself to being in wards. I had to contribute to developing my country,’’ she says.

The constant wars she had experienced made Dr Koiti appreciate that politics defined everything around her. That is how she became the Youth Representative to the Joint Monitoring of the evaluation commission, the IGAD High Level Revitalisation Forum (HLRF) that culminated into the revitalised agreement on the resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

“I ensured there was youth representation through the Ministry of Youth whose occupant is restricted to people below 40 years. I also co-founded the South Sudan Women Coalition for Peace, which negotiated for 35 per cent representation of women at all levels of government,’’ Dr Koiti says.

Although this has not been implemented in modern-day South Sudan, she is happy the recommendations are entrenched in their constitution.

“Currently, women make up 32 per cent of the 650 South Sudanese Members of Parliament. There is only one women governor out of 10 governors that run states. Further, there is no woman Chief Administrative Officer for any of the three administrative states:  Greater Pibor, Ruweng and Abyei.’’

Currently, Dr Koiti is the Executive Director of South Sudanese Women in Medicine (Sswim), an organisation that engages female South Sudanese medical, dental and pharmacy practitioners to save lives and address challenges unique to their career progression while influencing the delivery of healthcare in South Sudan.

She also works as a doctor with Medicenes Sans Frontieres (MSF) in South Sudan.

She is also a 2023 WomenLiftHealth fellow, a programme that is helping her expand her leadership skills in global health and achieving gender equality. In her free time, Dr Koiti enjoys discussions around current affairs, crocheting and reading.