SOUTH SUDAN - When the women of South Sudan welcomed the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, they were cognizant of the fact that true democracy will be realised only when their human rights are realised.
It is a young democracy battling to stay afloat against the backdrop of a fragile peace arrangement. A 22-year-war rained terror on the land, and caused unimaginable levels of destruction, killing two million people and displacing four million more according to U.N. estimates.
The CPA, which brought an end to the bloodshed, also reserved 25 percent of government posts for women. This was duly realised - at least in terms of numbers - in the new government of South Sudan.
But women are worried that their gains may be eroded amidst tensions and escalating insecurity linked to elections originally scheduled for June but now postponed until February next year.
The other source of apprehension is the referendum to decide the future of South Sudan’s relationship with the rest of the country, scheduled for 2011.
These two milestone events in the life of the country could be critical for women’s democracy.
Joy Raphael is confident. A vocal politician from the Central Equatoria State and member of the Women Union - a movement formed to address the plight of women in the region, she has declared that her name will be on the ballots during the upcoming general elections.
“We will not experience the New Sudan, for which dream [so much] blood has been shed and many lives lost, unless women sit at the leadership table which is still largely patriarchal,” she said.
“Women may not have been on the battlefield physically, but as the war [went on] endlessly, we lost husbands and sons and learnt to be both mother and father. We lived on nothing but hope.”
She believes that Sudanese women, like their counterparts in countries across the world, can bring a fundamental contribution to the political arena by injecting a gender-sensitive approach to the decision-making process.
“This is the dawn that the Sudanese women have waited and hoped for. Leadership will not come easily and it therefore calls for women to be proactive and stand to be counted,” insists Hellen Mursal, the South Sudanese minister for gender and social welfare in Central Equatoria State.
These women’s voices epitomise the spirit of many across the ten states of Southern Sudan.
Obstacles to leadership
“Life here is a battle for survival, a continuous struggle in a country characterised by a depressed economy in the face of a major global economic crisis whose impact is already trickling down to us,” Raphael explains.
South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, 1,700 deaths per 100,000 live births according to statistics form Sudan’s national report on Millennium Development Goals.
Further, the report indicates that the country also has high levels of illiteracy among women. For example, among women aged between 15 and 24, 84 percent cannot read or write, making much information that can empower women inaccessible.
The number of boys enrolled in primary schools is three times that of girls this, in spite of the fact that women are estimated to account for 60 percent of the population.
While there are radio stations which broadcast in vernacular languages, overwhelming levels of poverty mean few women own a radio, thus cutting them off from a vital source of information which could help them make informed choices.
All this represents an extra challenge to women fighting to take their place in the leadership of the country. The majority simply do not - yet - have the capacity.
Though the 25 percent representation of women at all levels of government as laid out in the CPA is generally being respected in numerical terms, not all states in South Sudan have achieved the threshold.
In Eastern Equatoria state, which fell three women short of meeting the 25 percent requirement, the problem has been that there are not enough literate women to fill the posts.
But even in the six states where the quota has been achieved, many argue that the 25 percent is being used as a smoke screen where pliable women are put into positions of power, while more independent-minded women continue to be marginalised from leadership positions.
“It is true there are women leaders in most states, but most of them have been placed in those positions to add cosmetic value. We are still not aware of what criteria were used to make these women leaders,” explains Kyampaire Vervice, a business woman and a member of South Sudan Women Union.
“It appears that to achieve these positions, it is more of the ‘know-who’ than the ‘know-how’ - a corrupt selection process that locks out women of substance, women who can stand up and defend their position and worth as leaders.”
Women need support
The amount of space given to the Sudanese woman in leadership has never been more crucial than now, as the country stands at a cross-roads.
The figure of the late Dr John Garang’, who for 21 years led a bush war against the North, still looms large over South Sudan.
“The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement is committed to the emancipation of women,” he told a donor conference in Norway in 2005.
“Ninety-five percent of our women have not gone to school and the best way to empower them is through education of the girl child. We need universal primary education, so that by 2015 all children in Southern Sudan should be in school.”
Looking ahead to the referendum on the region’s future, Garang’ made a strong plea for the people of South Sudan to come out and make a choice.
“This choice has not been reserved for men, neither has it been reserved for us women to simply rubber stamp men into leadership through our vote, it is for us also to rise up as leaders,” emphasises Raphael.
“The fact that it is men who choose who should benefit from affirmative action, cannot help transform women’s leadership in this country, and we argue that the decisions have not been reserved for men, neither has it been reserved for us women to simply rubber stamp men into leadership through our vote. It is for us also to rise up as leaders together,” she concludes.
“Women in Sudan have faced harsh living conditions and bear deep scars,” adds Kyampaire Vervice, “both physical and emotional from the effects of war. Our priorities have shifted, as it does during conflict, from a consciousness for development to a consciousness for survival.
“And now with the end of war, we find ourselves in a bittersweet situation: grateful to finally enjoy a sense of peace, but incapacitated. We are without knowledge on how to seize this moment and grow from it.”
Dr Martin Elia Lomuro, minister for parliamentary affairs, agrees. “The challenges here are enormous, but we have come to a point where women need to be given an opportunity to explore their potential in an environment that is enabling. “Their marginalisation has gone on for too long.”
The months to come will show whether South Sudan’s young democracy will find its place in the international community. And whether women will take their rightful place within the country’s political and social life.