Election time in Sudan: Will it bring change for women?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Katherine Austin-Evelyn
Eastern Africa

Globally, the rate of women's formal political participation is low, despite progress over the past few decades. Post-conflict settings have seen a rise in constitutional provisions that enable more political participation for women – Rwanda and South Africa for example(2) – but it remains to be seen whether the political transformations in southern Sudan will yield a similar outcome. Women played various roles in the lead-up to separation of south from north: they were combatants, peacemakers and the glue that kept families together, which qualifies them to sit at the negotiating table and assume an active role in nation building.(3) Women were not included in decision-making roles during conflict and peace-making processes.(4)

This CAI paper explores women's role in the nation-building process in southern Sudan, particularly given recent and upcoming developments related to secession from the north. Some pressing challenges lie ahead for southern Sudanese women with regard to political representation and participation in the fallout of these political transformations.

Recent history

Historically, the Sudan has seen longstanding conflict between north and south, from 1955 - 1972, followed by the most recent civil war from 1983-2005 as well as the Darfur crisis, which began in 2003. These conflicts have been characterised by high rates of violence against women as a tactic of war.(5) The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, gave way to new forms of government, the drafting of new constitutions and the most recent historic referendum. Although there was optimism that the CPA would bring positive changes for women, the negotiation processes have been widely criticised for excluding women.(6) For example, after a proposal to implement a 25% minimum quota for female parliamentarians, one minister responded by laughing and asking where the women would be found to fill these positions.(7)

Although the quota proposal was eventually accepted, the mindset and approach embodied by the minister's response revealed the CPA's gender-blindness. Indeed, gender inequality related to issues of power and wealth sharing was not discussed during the drafting of the constitution.(8) Despite these challenges, it seems that the transformations occurring in the Sudan are creating spaces and opportunities for women to mobilise and organise for more participation in the nation-building process. In the south, one such marker of this mobilisation is conferences on women and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) held in 2007 and 2011, where poverty, maternal mortality and basic social services in the region were discussed.(9)

The general elections of 2010 marked a turning point for women in southern Sudan. More than 700 women contested at all levels. The final result of the legislative elections saw a rise in the representation of women in the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly (SSLA) from 25 to 28.5%. As a result, southern Sudan now ranks in the top ten African countries in terms of women's representation in parliament.(10) Although the January 2011 election was critical for women's democracy, meaningful inclusion in post-election governance is even more critical.

Substantive representation: The marker of success

Feminist scholars have duly posed a question: how substantive have high rates of women's political participation been – both in relatively peaceful countries and in post-conflict settings? Two prominent concepts of representation first coined by Hanna Pitkin include ‘descriptive' and ‘substantive' representation.(11) Descriptive representation refers to representation by someone who resembles the constituency or ‘mirror[s] some of the more frequent experiences and outward manifestations of belonging to [a] group.'(12) Substantive representation meanwhile prioritises actions and interests over physical characteristics. In summary, “The first form focuses on embodiment and physical traits, the politics of ‘presence,' and the latter focuses on ideology and advocacy, or a politics of ‘ideas.'”(13)

In the 1983 election, there were no women running for office and women could not vote. This, contrasted with women gaining over 25 percent of elected office, having their first female presidential candidate and comprising 50.6% of the voting population in 2010, certainly shows tremendous progress.(14) Sudan is on its way to descriptive political representation of women in terms of numbers. Regarding substantive representation of southern Sudanese women, one must be wary of purely symbolic gestures to include women in political processes and nation-building when these gestures hold very little prospect of substantial involvement. Quotas can be a ‘quick fix' but true political change for women takes a significant amount of time. For example, it took the Rwandan parliament years to pass their first piece of legislation on gender-based violence, not to mention the continuous ethnic violence in the country, which threatens their substantive progress.(15)

A southern Sudanese national women's agenda, with political support and financial resources, which prioritises the women's needs and interests, would be the biggest marker of substantive representation success. Issues like education and literacy for women, social work on violence against women and the high cost of candidacy fees for women who want to participate politically, for example, need to be high on the agenda. Southern Sudanese women can only be at the heart of this agenda if the environment facilitates free expression of needs and interests. Given what has been reported on women's reduced role in drafting the CPA and other constitutional arrangements, it is unlikely that those conditions are currently in place.

Engendering a better political environment

The pursuit of more favourable conditions is closely linked to the goal of rendering women's participation meaningful, which requires much more than the numerical assignment of formal positions. Some southern Sudanese female politicians are concerned that citizens see the 25% allocation to women as a ‘magic bullet' solution rather than the initial stages of an effort to reduce social inequalities. Angelina Teny, governor of Unity State and one of the best-known female politicians in the country, says, “To my mind, a meaningful five percent is better than a window-dressing twenty-five percent. And sometimes, it does feel like window dressing.”(16)

Historically, women's role in southern Sudanese politics is also coloured by the struggle against enforced Islamisation, which presents significant challenges for women to thrive politically. Perhaps one of the most challenging areas is women's education. Ninety-two percent of women in southern Sudan cannot read or write.(17) Violence against women, a hallmark of the 22-year war in the Sudan, is also a major barrier to women thriving in any arena in the country. There have been efforts to legislatively curb instances of violence, especially against girls. For example, in 2008 legislation was passed in the south that dictates that “Every female child has a right to be protected against early and forced marriage” and set the marriageable age to 18 years. Unfortunately, reports state that this law is not being enforced.(18) Other stories abound of women who are raped and forced to marry their rapists while the chief concerns of the community remain dowry payments rather than human rights.(19)

Concluding remarks

Some believe that in post-conflict settings and times of political upheaval there is more room for social change. Women often come forward as agents of change and have done so in southern Sudan. Post-conflict countries are highly influenced by the international community, who may rush to put women into office and to hurry countries along the ideal path of development, but such processes need to be conducted thoughtfully and through the will of citizens. A local drive for a more gender-equal state in southern Sudan is underway. "We will not experience the New Sudan, for which [so much] blood has been shed and many lives lost, unless women sit at the leadership table – which is still largely patriarchal," Joy Raphael, a candidate in the last election said.(20)


(1) Contact Katherine Austin-Evelyn through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit ( gender.issues@consultancyafrica.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Rwanda has 36.9 % women in Parliament and South Africa has 29.6%, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), 2010, http://www.ipu.org.
(3) Anne Itto, ‘Guests at the table? The role of women in the peace process', Concilliation Resources, 2006, http://www.c-r.org.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Leni Wild & Pilar Domingo, ‘Southern Sudan Referendum', Open Democracy Network, 11 January 2011, http://www.opendemocracy.net.
(7) Anne Itto, ‘Guests at the table? The role of women in the peace process', Conciliation Resources, 2006, http://www.c-r.org.
(8) Leni Wild & Pilar Domingo, ‘Southern Sudan Referendum', Open Democracy Network, 11 January 2011, http://www.opendemocracy.net.
(9) ‘SPLM Women's Conference Convenes in Juba', Goss Mission - USA, 14 September 2007, http://www.gossmission.org.
(10) Women's Democracy Network, ‘Southern Sudan Legislative Assemblies: A Legislator's Guide to Gender Politics', Women's Democracy Network Training Materials, 2010, http://www.wdn.org.
(11) Pitkin, H. F. (1967) The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press); Phillips, A. (1995) The Politics of Presence: The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity, and Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
(12) Mansbridge, J. 1999. Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? A contingent "Yes.” Journal of Politics, 61(3), pp. 628–57.
(13) Phillips, A. 1995. The politics of presence: The political representation of gender, ethnicity, and race. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(14) ‘Women in Western Equatoria hail the success of southern referendum process', The Sudan Tribune, 24 January 2011, http://www.sudantribune.com.
(15) Leigh-Hogg, C. 2009. Women's political representation in post-conflict Rwanda: A politics of inclusion or exclusion? Journal of International Women's Studies, 11 (3).
(16) Rebecca Hamilton, ‘Sudan dispatch: What about the Women?', The New Republic, 25 January 2011, http://www.tnr.com.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Joyce Chimbi, ‘Women ready to take their place', Africa Woman and Child Feature Services, 23 June 2009, http://www.awcfs.org.

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