South Sudanese Women Struggle to Make Their Voices Heard

November 8, 2011 | Mia Bittar and Lauren Feeney

Last May, a group of about 60 women, some in colorful African dress, others in modest Islamic garb, a few in Western-style suits, met in Juba, soon to be the capital of the new nation of South Sudan, to discuss their country’s constitution.

Over a period of three days, the women — including members of parliament, local governments, and grassroots leaders — combed through a 94-page draft, making notes in the margin and shouting out suggestions.

“Concerning land, they say the government will follow customary rights of inheritance,” one woman said. “That’s wrong, because customary law is against us as women.”

“I think we should take out all mention of ‘in accordance with customs, values and norms,’” another woman chimed in.

Everyone in the room seemed to also agree that the quota of 25 percent women’s participation in government was too low, and that the draft granted a dangerous amount of power to the president. The women planned to take their concerns to an upcoming meeting of parliament.

The document, known as the transitional constitution, would become the rule of law when South Sudan declared its independence on July 9th, and would serve as the basis for a permanent constitution for the new nation.

The American constitution was written by a room full of men in white powdered wigs. Men are still the primary architects of new nations, almost without exception. But these days there’s an understanding within the international community that governing documents should at least take into account the concerns and opinions of the the people who are subject to them.

“When we actually went through the constitution, line by line, article by article, women had something to say about almost everything,” said Farah Council of the Institute for Inclusive Security, an American NGO that works to increase women’s participation in formal peace processes around the world and helped organize the Juba workshop.

“There are aspects that relate to women specifically, things like family law, marriage law — of course women will have something to say about that. But they also had something to say about the concentration of executive power. Women will have opinions on things that are not necessarily specifically related to women, which is one reason that they should be at the table.”

Council said that post-war transitions such as the one in progress in Sudan represent an opportunity for women to make their voices heard in ways that they weren’t before. Sudan’s predominantly Muslim north and Christian/animist South have been at war for the past 30, 40 or 50 years depending on who you ask.

“Women in war zones are the primary caretakers and breadwinners of households. A lot of the men have fled or have fought and been killed, and so the women are left to not only take care of the children but to earn income,” Council said.

“In Rwanda, over 50 percent of positions in government go to women. In South Africa it’s a third. Those things happened after transitions in government, because there’s is a unique opportunity to restructure the structures, to rewrite the policies, to be more inclusive.”

Women in South Sudan face obstacles that are hard to fathom. More than 80 percent of South Sudanese women are illiterate, and the country has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. Women’s mobilization efforts are hindered by the fact that there is no real internet access in South Sudan, there are hardly any roads, and flights to Juba from the rural areas where most people live are rare and extremely expensive.

After the constitutional workshop in Juba, the women agreed to meet again on July 9th to celebrate their country’s independence day together. But even in the week leading up to independence, women from the rural areas were unsure if they’d be able to attend. Flights to the capital were over-booked, and there were security issues in the contested regions of Abyei and South Kordufan.

When the day arrived, everyone who could make it gathered at the Juba Women’s Union to prepare food, costumes and song before marching together toward the John Garang Mausoleum (Garang led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the Second Sudanese Civil War) where the new flag would be raised and, constitution in hand, the new president would be sworn in.

“As a Southern Sudanese lady, I’ve been waiting for this moment,” said Tabitha Eliaba Kenyi, one of the workshop participants. “I’m very, very happy for this day.”

Dressed in matching t-shirts proclaiming the day and draped with colorful sashes, the women marched alongside groups of soldiers, scouts, war amputees and tribespeople. There was singing, drumming, dancing, high-pitched yelping and a general sense of joyousness.

But as the flag was raised, the women were still outside the gates, the parade cut short due to massive disorganization.

And as for the constitution, “nobody has seen it,” said Zahra, one of the workshop participants who joined the march. “The constitution was passed on July 6th at 11:30 at night, but since then, I did not get a copy, the media didn’t print it, nobody has seen it.”

No one seemed to know whether the women’s concerns were heard or if their demands were met.

“Certainly, transparency is an issue for women,” Council said — “knowing how to access information about the process and how to penetrate that process, how to reach their policy makers and what to say.”

“What is most important,” Council said, “is that there is a huge entry point about to come for women to participate in the permanent constitution process.”

Zahra agreed. Independence Day was unforgettable, she said, and couldn’t have happened without women’s participation. She points out that when South Sudan held a referendum on whether or not to declare independence, the majority of voters were women.

Still, she said, the greater task lies ahead, to “champion for our issues in the permanent constitution.” Both Zahra and Council lament the fact that no timeline for the creation of the permanent constitution has been defined, but both will be working hard in the months and years to come to make sure that women are included in the process.

“Governance will not work unless it is inclusive.” Council said, “unless there is a system for people being able to feed into the policies that affect them.”

“All the stakeholders must be represented,” said Zahra, “and we all know who is the largest population of the society. The women and the youth are the backbone and the pillars of this nation.”