Since South Sudan’s independence on 9 July 2011, the positive role that women played in the independence struggle barely features in development policy discourse. As in many post-conflict situations in Africa, despite their active role in bringing peace and independence, women tend to fade into the background when official peace negotiations begin and when the consolidation of peace and rebuilding of the economy become formal ventures. Thus the complex ways that gender and development interact in the state-building process have to be appreciated by policymakers in South Sudan.
Theoretically, post-independence South Sudan has provided a framework that aims to bring women to the fore, and the commitment of the government to ceding to international laws in this regard should be applauded. It has signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and has signed the Maputo Protocol, which calls for the protection of women’s human rights. As an African Union (AU) member state, South Sudan has also adopted the AU’s Post-Conflict, Reconstruction and Development strategy, which calls for gender mainstreaming to inform member states’ nation- and state-building projects. With the international spotlight on South Sudan as the country enters its second year of independence, a sustainable development policy will require the full inclusion of women, and while formal national processes are pertinent, the main thrust for political reconstruction invariably rests on local-level involvement and initiatives.
South Sudanese women activists and leaders assert that although freedom has not been fully translated into the daily lives of ordinary women, the Central Equatoria state Governor’s advisor on conflict resolution, Helen Murshali Boro, stated that ‘there is freedom of speech to allow women to express themselves and this means women’s concerns will not go off the radar until they are addressed in the coming years of the country’s independence’.
Basic questions therefore revolve around the degree to which the political system recognises and protects women’s rights and interests, and whether women will be empowered to influence and participate in political and economic processes. The numerous priorities and agendas on the table have by default made basic infrastructural development the obvious organising principle for rebuilding the economy, leaving out consensus building around social relationships, where women strongly feature. Such relationships involve the pre-war and pre-independence position of women as refugees, displaced persons, ex-combatants and breadwinners. This will partly determine their position in the current and future status quo, as it is not always easy to distinguish post-conflict reconstruction from mainstream development, because these may overlap.
While national processes are important and should speak to addressing gaps, South Sudan’s current human development challenges are enormous. Today, the country finds itself in the midst of an economic crisis, while humanitarian needs are increasing. The number of refugees, people at risk of statelessness, returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) has increased exponentially due to the inter-communal and cross-border clashes that have taken place between August 2011 and July 2012. The number of people facing food insecurity has doubled in 2012. The National Baseline Household Survey released in June 2012 indicates that over half of South Sudan’s 8,2 million people live under the poverty line of less than a dollar a day, and the majority of the poor are women. Women also still suffer from the consequences of a gendered war, in which rape was used as weapon of war. Sexual and gender-based violence remains widespread nationwide and affects IDPs, returnees, refugees and host communities alike.
In March 2012 President Salva Kiir’s commitment to women’s empowerment and gender equality as a central means of achieving development was questioned when he announced the appointment of ambassadors to be deployed throught the world: of the 90 ambassadors, only nine were women.
Also, the Transitional Consitution takes into account the plight of women and sets out to rectify the historical injustices affecting them in several ways. The affirmative action policy that sets the 25% benchmark for women’s representation in the public sector mandates all government institutions and agencies to promote women’s participation in public life and their representation in legislative and executive organs. Other rights include equal pay for equal work and provisions for maternity leave. Yet despite this, South Sudan still grapples with issues emanating from the tension between customary law and the Transitional Consitution. Traditional practices such as forced early marriages and the handing over of girls as young as nine for marriage as compensation for blood feuds are still in use. With the country having some of the world’s worst development indicators, many women in South Sudan are dying while giving life. In June 2012, Kate Gilmore, assistant secretary-general of the UN Population Fund, reported that in every 100 000 births, over 2 000 women die from preventable causes. This is four times the number of women dying while giving birth in other parts of Africa.
Despite their active involvement in the peacebuilding process that led to the signing of the Comprehesive Peace Agreement in 2005, which gave way to the referendum and the declaration of South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the role of South Sudanese women was not meaningfully acknowledged until President Kirr’s announcement of a women-inclusive cabinet (however, there were only five women among 29 ministers). Despite this, women’s role in the state-building project has not been asserted, nor has it been displayed as an important component of the president’s recent decisions. For example, the South Sudanese delegation involved in negotiations with Sudan under the auspices of the Thabo Mbeki-led AU High-level Panel does not include any women. Thus in a country where 65% of the population is female, the most important discourse taking place that will inform South Sudan’s future is not nuanced by voices that raise the interests of women, which speaks to how non-inclusive the state-building project is.
Hence, the question of women’s roles as active agents of political change needs to be acknowledged as relevant in South Sudan. While hardcore security and development issues are more urgent, an alternative agenda, in particular the discussion on women’s engagement and role in post-independence political and economic life, is important. A discussion on women’s political rights and roles in post-conflict society cannot be separated from a discussion of their positions before and during the war. The divergent demands on the executive may continue to focus discussions on hardcore security and development issues, and understandably so. In order to modify this path – which excludes a deeper understanding of the gendered nature of post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, as well as women’s roles and experiences in the processes of democratisation, decentralisation and legal reform, and in complex social reconstruction processes – women need to feature more prominently in policy discourse.
While such formal processes are necessary and crucial, targeted policies need to take into account the massive social dislocation and disintegration that the country faces. Government needs to allocate resources to provide access to basic services, for this is a precondition not only for South Sudan’s survival, but also to enable South Sudanese, and expecially female citizens, to contribute to the overall rebuilding process. Also, the role of society and especially of women should not be overlooked, for it is in everyday social interactions that past tensions are acknowledged and dealt with. It is here that a coherent and consistent approach needs to conceptualise women as actors beyond the domestic sphere.