The north-east African nation of Sudan, currently Africa’s largest country by territory, will soon be split into two, following a referendum which took place in the south of the country in January 2011. On February 7, 2011 it was announced that an overwhelming majority (98.83%) of Southern Sudanese had voted in favour of secession from Sudan.

South Sudan is expected to become the newest independent country on July 9, 2011. The referendum was one of the outcomes of the 2005 Naivasha Agreement which ended 22 years of war between the north and South Sudan.

Women constitute about 65% of the approximately eight million people of South Sudan. The official results of the referendum, which indicated a 97.58% voter turnout, did not disaggregate the data by sex, however, reports indicate that 52% of voters were women. The South Sudan 2005 interim constitution provides for affirmative action, stipulating at least 25% women’s “participation in public life and their representation in the legislative and executive organs”. However, low literacy levels and prevailing traditional roles and expectations of women remain a hindrance to their meaningful participation in political leadership.

The interim constitution upholds the principle of equality before the law irrespective of, among other things, sex. It provides for affirmative action and the right to participate equally it public life, as well as stipulating the rights to equal pay for equal work and for women to own and inherit property, and it requires the government of South Sudan to enact laws that prohibit harmful traditional practices and to provide maternity, child care and medical care for pregnant women.

Manal Allagabo, the Sudan Coordinator of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) Network spoke with AWID about the implications of independence from a women’s rights perspective.

South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence. Why was it so important for the south to secede from the north?

MANAL ALLAGABO (MA): I think secession was very important because for a long time, the citizens of South Sudan have faced marginalization and discrimination. Southern Sudanese in the north live at the peripheries of the cities or in camps for displaced people, and it is difficult for them to find formal employment. The south is underdeveloped and there is a lack of basic services such as health and education. After years of being treated as second class citizens, Southern Sudanese will now enjoy the right to make their own decisions.

I commend the people of South Sudan for their decision. I hope that the women of South Sudan will be strengthened by their experiences during the war, and will stand up for their rights.

What has the situation been for women in the South?

MA: There are high levels of poverty and illiteracy amongst women, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is a concern and domestic violence and other forms of gender based violence are common. Even after the ceasefire between the north and the south, ethnic conflicts have continued and women have been the most vulnerable to violence and displacement. Respect for women’s rights is not generally a part of the culture in South Sudan. Customary laws tend to be biased in favour of men. Decision makers in the customary courts, otherwise known as native courts, have generally all been men. Recently a woman was appointed to a customary law court, but on the whole, the judges and juries have been men. One particular area in which women are disadvantaged in customary courts is where they are charged with adultery. Women are often incarcerated for 8 months to 1 year on circumstantial evidence on adultery claims. Women’s adultery claims against men, on the other hand, are rarely upheld, if they are brought before the customary courts at all.

Women fought alongside men during the war but after the ceasefire, they did not get the same recognition or positions as men. While their political participation did increase after the war, women’s participation has not been as effective as it should be. They have continued to struggle against stereotypes and the patriarchal mentalities of their communities. Although women participate within political parties they are generally not in decision-making positions in those parties.

What will the immediate priorities be for South Sudan in recovering from the devastating war? And what are the priorities in relation to women’s rights?

MA: South Sudan needs to adopt an orderly process of recovery. Upholding peace and security is the first priority. The government must ensure that women, who are especially vulnerable in ethnic conflicts, are safe and secure.

The government will need to implement rehabilitation and reconciliation programmes to reintegrate the fighters into their communities and these programmes must include psychosocial therapy.

The government will also need to develop the infrastructure as the south is extremely underdeveloped. Economic recovery and growth is another priority, and the citizens of South Sudan need job opportunities. Other needs include basic services like health, water, sanitation, education and housing.

Another major concern is citizenship and nationality rights. Many southern women have married men from the north and many women from the north have married southern men. It must be recognized that the citizens of Sudan and South Sudan, despite living in one region, often have familial ties in the other. The separation of the two countries should not compromise their citizenship or nationality rights. The freedoms of movement and association must be upheld. At the moment it is not clear if there will be the possibility of dual citizenship for people in the north or the south.

Women should make use of the constitution of South Sudan and international women’s rights conventions to ensure that their rights are prioritized in the new state. They should take advantage of the 25% affirmative action quota that the constitution already provides and make their presence felt at all levels of political leadership. They should also work to increase this percentage eventually.

How should women’s rights organizations work to ensure that women’s rights are enshrined in the framework of the new state?

MA: A lot of work will have to be done to critically examine and improve the women’s rights situation. For women to guarantee and ensure that their rights are upheld and promoted by the government, many different strategies and approaches should be used and adopted. Women will need to work closely together and engage at different levels. As a priority, they should organize themselves through community based organizations and other associations in order to strengthen their engagement.

Women in South Sudan have varying levels of understanding of human and women’s rights issues. On the whole, there is more awareness amongst the elite than the women at the grassroots. Many poor, rural women have never heard of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It is written in English, which many people do not understand, and has not been translated into local languages. Most women do not know how to participate in the governance of the country. Therefore, women’s rights organizations will need to disseminate information about why and how women can participate in governance processes.

Although, at up to 7.2%, South Sudan’s HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is still relatively low compared to some other African countries, the human and women’s rights dimensions of the disease should be considered a priority in order to forestall further suffering. Women’s rights organizations need to engage in advocacy and other work in this area.

Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the people of South Sudan have experienced increased freedom of expression in the print and mass media. Women’s rights organizations need to take advantage of the enhanced space to disseminate information on women’s rights and encourage women’s involvement in public affairs.

Women’s rights organizations in South Sudan need to strengthen their links with those in northern Sudan as well as regional and international networks. Women’s rights organizations in northern Sudan have a longer history of activism and advocacy and their counterparts in the south would benefit from their experiences. On the other hand the experiences of southern women as civilians and combatants during 22 years of conflict are relevant in the context of other post-conflict societies in the region and further afield. It is crucial for women’s organizations and movements in South Sudan to be part of regional and global movements for gender justice.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for women’s rights in South Sudan?

MA: The interim constitution of South Sudan is explicit about that women’s rights must be upheld. However custom and tradition prevail and dilute the provisions of the interim constitution.

South Sudan continues to face ethnic conflicts, and disagreements over resource distribution might arise. As I mentioned before, women tend to be affected in multiple ways during conflict. It is also possible that the international community might intrude into the internal affairs of the new state.

On the other hand there is a lot of goodwill and support from the international community and many countries have recognized the new state. South Sudan has a good interim constitution that promotes women’s participation in leadership. Women’s rights organisations can learn from the experience of countries that have emerged from conflict such as Liberia and Rwanda. They can also benefit from the experiences of women’s rights organisations in their neighbouring countries of Kenya and Uganda. Finally, after separation from the north, there should no longer be religious tensions as the interim constitution stipulates that no religion will be above another.

By Kathambi Kinoti