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NAIROBI, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - While the normalization of diplomatic relations between Chad and Sudan and the signing of a cease fire and framework for peace negotiations between the Sudan government and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) are being heralded as critical steps towards peace in Darfur, there is still a long way to travel to resolving the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

Indeed, there is reason to be skeptical of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement for Darfur. Conflict in Darfur persists seven years on, with several failed attempts at peace. Many analysts noted that the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), signed by just the government and a single rebel faction, was dead before it was even concluded.

Under the leadership of Djibril Bassolé, the former foreign minister of Burkina Faso, the on-going peace talks in Doha must remedy the mistakes of the DPA to avoid another failure -namely ensuring the process is inclusive and consultative, rather than focusing on signatures in a quick time frame. The most notable and critical missing link are Sudanese women.

Paramount among the many voiceless in Sudan, are the voices of women, who are all too often excluded from the formal peace negotiations. Alarmingly, a 2009 UNIFEM study found that less than 3% of peace agreement signatories since 1992 are women. The positive and powerful role that women can play in peace processes has been well documented across the African continent –from Rwanda to Liberia to Uganda. In Somalia, and other conflict-affected countries, women were the only party able to shuttle messages between warring factions or to build bridges between perceived enemies. In Uganda, women’s participation in the peace process led to broader inclusion of education and health issues in negotiations around Disarmament, Demobilization, and Rehabilitation (DDR) –an area traditionally seen as of concern to males only.

It may not have made it to international headlines, but women are working hard on the sidelines of the Doha peace process. This is through women’s participation in the civil society forum, women’s on-going advocacy efforts in Sudan and abroad, as well as in the diaspora. A group of Sudanese women in the diaspora, representing different regions of Sudan, organized to engage in the peace negotiations process in order to support their Sudanese sisters. While these women do not have any official opportunity within the negotiations, they met with the Bassolé and the rebel factions –drawing attention to the lack of women represented, as well as working to bridge alliances between the disparate groups.

Still the problem remains that women are notably lacking from the formal negotiations. Even the mediation team, international envoys, and other Sudan peace partners are conspicuously lacking prominent women who are able to ensure that the peace process is indeed engendered and taking an inclusive approach to ensuring that all citizens are represented. In light of international commitments under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, this is a serious omission on the peace process and SudanÂ’s peace partners.

There should be a plan for ensuring that civil society will have a direct role during the negotiations. Peace will not be achieved simply by bringing together the combatant parties; the process must ensure that peopleÂ’s voices and concerns are integrated. To date, the Sudanese government and Darfur rebel groups have been blocking attempts to bring civil society into the process. As neither the Sudanese government, and increasingly so the rebel groups, are adequate representatives of the people of Darfur, civil societyÂ’s role in the negotiation process is that much more urgent for success.

International Sudan players, including the US, EU, and Russia, should be working to support the peace process through a coordinated, agreed upon approach. And importantly, this common approach should include a shared vision for womenÂ’s meaningful participation in the process. Indeed, it was an approach that was endorsed by the African Union and the Report of the High Level Panel on Darfur, headed by former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki.

There is pressure to solidify an agreement in time for the April elections, and indeed this is critically important for Darfur. However making sure the process is inclusive and comprehensive is even more important. Now is the time to open up the negotiations and to ensure that SudanÂ’s majority population, the women, have a voice in their own future. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, is the founder of the Green Belt Movement (greenbeltmovement.org) and a co-founder of the Nobel WomenÂ’s Initiative (nobelwomensinitiative.org).

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