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SOUTH SUDAN: Women’s Eyes on the Political Prize

Miriam Gathigah

JUBA, South Sudan, Jan 7 2010 (IPS) - 
January marks the fifth anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended a bitter north-south civil war in Sudan. With important elections scheduled for April, women are debating and fighting for an expanded role in the new institutions of government.

Outnumbered where it counts? South Sudanese women are seeking to strengthen their influence at all levels of society. Credit:  Peter Martell/IRIN

Outnumbered where it counts? South Sudanese women are seeking to strengthen their influence at all levels of society. Credit: Peter Martell/IRIN

“For as long as women continue to feel they have no say in politics, their sense of marginalization will make it difficult for them to work hand-in-hand with men,” insists Agnes Lawrence Odwar, Torit County member of the interim legislative assembly in Lakeside State.

In the eyes of women like Odwar, rebuilding infrastructure and civil institutions in a region cruelly devastated by conflict to a degree unmatched by even other civil wars on the continent will require profound changes.

“We believe this change will come through an engendered decision-making process (meaning more women participating in government) as well as in the implementation of these decisions,” opines Hannah Dario, a social worker in Lakeside State, Rumbek County.

“Hoodwinking us into believing in what is otherwise not a democratic process, because certain groups remain marginalized, will only breed more trouble. No one should gamble with the peace for which we have paid such a high price to enjoy.”

Sudanese women like Odwar and Dario believe South Sudan’s post-war leadership remains dominated by men, something which should be changed in the April elections.

There are voices seeking to push the debate over women’s role in politics in South Sudan extends beyond ensuring a small number of women gain positions.

“How about women as equal stakeholders of society? Are we also not entitled to participate in making decisions that determine our future as a nation?” asks Deborah Tito.

Tito, who describes herself as a housewife, is typical of many women at the grassroots of South Sudan’s women’s movement. She is a member of the Women’s Union, which has branches across all the Southern states as well as in the north of Sudan.

The movement gathers women to discuss political and societal issues – one result is that even South Sudanese women with little or no formal education often have a political awareness that is much stronger than their counterparts in other parts of the continent.

Its members meet to discuss and debate current political affairs; the meetings also serve to collect and articulate women’s grievances and issues to be passed on to those women who occupy elected and appointed positions in government.

The women, deeply apprehensive about the possibility of the region slipping back into armed conflict, find the Women’s Union provides a rare space to vent political passions in a society that remains strongly patriarchal, but this has not yet translated into substantial political power for women.

“It’s very unfortunate that the debate about women and leadership has degenerated into the number of seats we can or should have,” Tito says.

Her remarks are not intended to dismiss the importance of the growing numbers of women in political office, but to draw attention to how little tangible impact this has had on women’s lives. Health indicators are one concrete measure of conditions for women; on maternal mortality and other measures of women’s health, South Sudan ranks amongst the worst in the world.

The core of Tito’s message is the need to focus on quality even as women fight for quantity.

“Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer women leaders who can deliver, rather than more who are there to make the leadership class look good in terms of being more gender representative?” she asks.

“Not many women are willing to sacrifice their personal interests for the greater good which is to have a more gender representative leadership by women who can deliver. Women eyeing positions of power are extremely suspicious of each other,” concludes Tito.

“We know there is an under representation of women in leadership, what we need to do is learn how to better strategies by marshalling strength in support of the most promising candidates.”

Finding such candidates is made harder by the fact that South Sudan has a literacy rate of only 24 percent – just 12 percent for women, versus 37 percent for men.

“For most women, even with the end of the war, survival precedes all else. As long as they can put together something to feed the family then all else is luxury, including a more balanced gender make-up in government,” expounds Adak Costa, appointed a member of the Legislative Assembly for Rumbek County under affirmative action policies.

“Changing that perception is going to be very difficult. For educated women it is easy to see the cause-effect relationship between good government and a better south Sudan, but it is not easy for the uneducated.”

Tito emphasises that the system might reduce women to the role of rubber-stamping men into leadership.

Martin Elias Lomuro, South Sudan minister for parliamentary affairs, says there should be massive education on the need for Sudan to enjoy government representative of the different groups and interests in society.

“This, however, is not to say that the democratic structures already in place are not significant because there are fewer women in governance, but is a wake-up call on the fact that women need to be at the centre of mainstream leadership,” says Lomuro, who also leads the South Sudan Democratic Forum (SSDF) party.

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