The voice of South Sudan's women must be heard to give peace a chance

Leymah Gbowee, The Guardian
Monday, February 23, 2015 - 15:00
S. Sudan
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Peace Processes
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding
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I recently travelled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the summit of the African Union to talk about peace with South Sudanese women from both sides of the conflict. In the face of pain and mistrust, I witnessed the power of these women to heal and reconcile. I felt the air shift with the momentum of female peacemakers empowered to unite their country and end war. How remarkable that these women can embrace peace, while civil war engulfs their country and peace talks fail.

A rush of familiarity energised me.

It was more than 12 years ago that I came together with my sisters in Liberia topromote peace in our country. Weary of watching our leaders fail to negotiate an end to the civil war, we took peace into our own hands. We mobilised a sea of women clad in white, demanding reconciliation and an end to war. We put religion, ethnicity, and politics aside for peace. Our mass movement pushed warring factions in Liberia to sign a peace agreement in 2003.

In South Sudan, as in Liberia, women are bringing communities together. Women are using their experiences as survivors of conflict to support their neighbours and families. They are leading inter-community dialogues to promote healing and trust. Across the country, women are working at grassroots level, where the grievances of war are most raw, to turn the tide of suspicion and build trust and peace.

The women of South Sudan need the support of their leaders and the international community to maintain this momentum.

Since civil war erupted in December 2013, the situation for the people of South Sudan – particularly the women – continues to spiral out of control. More than 1.9 million people are displaced, and famine threatens those who have survived. After a visit to Bentiu, South Sudan,last year, Zainab Bangura, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said the nature of sexual violence in South Sudan is the worst she has seen in almost 30 years.

Since its launch, the African Union-backed commission of inquiry investigating South Sudan has documented widespread human rights abuses – including rape. However, last month, human rights defenders around the world were appalled to learn that the African Union would not release the commission’s report, which was expected to provide damning evidence of these crimes. Courageous South Sudanese survivors, witnesses, and human rights defenders spoke to the commission of inquiry in the hope that the report would fracture the culture of impunity suffocating their country.

Some argue the report may compromise fragile peace negotiations, but what of the consequences of shelving justice – emboldening future perpetrators with our unwillingness to tell the truth about what is happening in South Sudan? What of the consequences of silencing survivors who are bravely speaking out?

The voices of South Sudanese women are also largely silenced at peace talks. Since negotiations began in January 2014, men from warring factions have dominated the peace table in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. They have failed to bring peace to their people. Government and rebel leaders repeatedly stall negotiations and, in turn, peace. With each new round of negotiations, women’s voices remain starkly under-represented at the table.

Women make a measurable difference in the quality of peace negotiations. When women are at the peace table, they talk about more than politics and power. Women raise key economic and social issues including education, health and justice. When women are present, peace agreements are 64% less likely to fail. Just last spring, women played a leading role in a peace agreement in the Philippines that ended a 45-year civil war.

Imagine how the peace table would come together, and stay together, surrounded by South Sudan’s women. Imagine how the culture of impunity for serious crimes, including widespread sexual violence, would be shattered if our leaders had the courage to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes and create much needed space for survivors’ voices in peace building efforts.

We must insist that the voices of South Sudan’s women are given equal space at the peace table. We must ensure their perspectives promoting peace and reconciliation are incorporated into a legitimate, sustainable peace agreement. We must urge the African Union to stand for justice and accountability in South Sudan by immediately releasing the commission of inquiry’s report.

More than a year after conflict broke out in South Sudan, the country is still at risk of famine and renewed war. Let us make 2015 the year South Sudanese and international leaders welcomed women to peace negotiations and declined to silence their calls for justice; the year a lasting peace was established in our world’s newest country.