South Sudan: Women’s Rights in South Sudan – When Is the ‘Right Time’?

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Grassroots organising, coalitions, and movement-building majorly contributed to South Sudan’s independence in 2011 from Sudan, in which women and girls played a significant role. While the promise and vision for the “New Sudan” embodied all, including women’s liberation, the post-independence reality has been otherwise. This isnot surprising because,throughout the liberation struggle,politicians used the women’s agenda without ever centring women or their freedom.

While Southern Sudanese celebrated the progress made with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 that laid a concrete foundation for South Sudan’s independence in 2011, it became clear that the fight for women’s rights was far from being won. Here I recollect how women organized for their rights during the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) for liberation. I highlight and analyse the shifts and trends in women’s mobilisation post-independence.

Women’s organizing and movement building during the liberation struggles for independence

Like many histories, South Sudan reflects dominant voices, which tend to be patriarchal. This narrative often erases women’s critical roles and contributions in the liberation struggle. Little is documented on women’s mobilization role between 1955 and 1983 during the first Sudanese civil war and the decade of relative stability after the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement. However, this is slowly changing as South Sudanese women, especially the younger generation, have become more intentional about telling and documenting their stories, experiences, and different forms of organizing, leveraging technological advancements.

All forms of organizing and coalition building during the fight for independence were centred around the broader liberation movement’s agenda and vision. Between 1983 and 2011, South Sudanese women organized and built coalitions and networks of support that largely contributed to the overall movement while simultaneously fighting for their liberation. On the military front, women organized in two main ways; through the “Katiba Banat” and “Katiba Shetha” which were the “girls’ battalion” and “women’s battalion” respectively. Politically, women mainly organized through women’s unions. These unions, with chapters especially in liberated areas, played a significant role in enabling women to assert themselves and demand representation and participation as a citizenry. Beyond pushing for political participation and inclusion of women, it was through the different chapters of the women’s unions that they identified and utilized their different potentials, skills and knowledge, i.e., they provided food assistance to the soldiers on the frontlines, nursed wounded soldiers, taught children in the SPLM/A liberated areas, gathered and provided intelligence among other significant roles.

Art was yet another tool women used to mobilize and voice women’s concerns during the liberation struggle. This included music, spoken word, and poetry, among other forms. Influential artists and legends like Nyankol Mathiang contributed their talent to the revolution and composed songs that broke down why people from the Southern region needed to fight. To date, Mathiang’s music is still relevant to many South Sudanese who feel betrayed by a movement that turned around and oppressed them post-independence.

As the fight for independence was prolonged, more South Sudanese, primarily women, and children, were displaced to the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and overseas in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. This diaspora experience provided the women with yet another opportunity to form associations and networks, such as the Sudanese Women’s Association in Nairobi (SWAN), the New Sudan Women’s Association, and the New Sudan Women Federation (NSWF), among others. These associations and networks legitimated their organizing and enabled them to campaign, lobby, and advocate within the regions where they resided for the liberation of South Sudan and their rights as women. Some of these women attended world conferences on women’s rights, amplifying Southern Sudanese women’s voices within important conferences that produced the Beijing Declaration of 1995, among others.

Another avenue was lobbying, advocacy, and campaigns for girls’ education. Many women during the liberation period (1956-2005) were either denied education or could not complete their studies because of the war that limited access to such essential services. Even when there were opportunities to study, there was a solid preference for educating male children. In communities where bride wealth is formed of large herds of cattle, girls are treated as family and communal property. This reality intensifies during times of crisis, such as war, where girls become the first victims of families’ needs for survival. These women understood and foresaw that formal education was paramount and would be even more critical for their liberation in years to come. One of the main issues they focused on was girls’ education. They did not just lobby, advocate, and campaign for it but practically ensured that many of their daughters could attend school. Women like Victoria Yar, the first Southern Sudan girl to study and graduate from the University of Khartoum who later became a prominent politician, broke many patriarchal gender and social norms, proving that girls, too, once given the same opportunities, can be anything. While many formally educated young women of this generation take this for granted, many women who came before paid the price for some of us to enjoy this fundamental human right that is still not a reality for millions of girls across South Sudan.

Women’s strategic mobilization and organizing in the 1980s and 1990s did not only lay the foundation for the later increase in representation and participation of women in institutionalized politics during the interim years leading to independence but also enabled them to push for legislation to demand women’s rights in the early 2000s during the CPA. As the possibilities of peace talks between the SPLM/A and the Government of Sudan became apparent in the late 1990s, Southern Sudanese women convened in 1998 for five days in New Kush, Sudan, for their first ever “SPLM Women’s Conference”.[1]Aware that they needed legislation that laid the foundations on which they could start to demand their rights actively, women during this conference focused on strategic legislative demands to put forward during the peace negotiations. The demand for at least a 25% quota for women’s representation at all levels was one of the primary outcomes of this conference. This quota became the cornerstone of their demand for representation during the interim government of Southern Sudan. They ensured this was well articulated in the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan 2005,[2]and later in the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan 2011.[3]

The fight for women’s rights within the liberation movement

Despite women’s immense contribution, the SPLM as a movement provided no meaningful inclusion, participation, or representation of women. Women largely remained in gendered roles even within the movement. It was not until 1994 that the movement started to respond to the question of women’s representation and participation. In preparation for the SPLM/SPLA First National Convention held in 1994, “Women’s Participation in the liberation struggle” was one of the 18 agenda items for the meeting.

Resolution 16 of the SPLM National Convention later addressed women’s participation, and three key points were highlighted; firstly, the recognition that women suffer from double marginalization and that the movement has neglected them in many fields. It was therefore committed to taking necessary positive measures for women’s total liberation, development, and empowerment. Even though women had organized and mobilized within the movement and continued to do so strategically, the second and third points under this resolution urged women to organize and establish women’s organizations at all levels and build networks with women from the continent and internationally. The same year, two women were appointed to the National Executive Committee of the SPLM for the first time in its history.

In the early 2000s, the final years leading to the signing of the CPA in 2005, the SPLM strategic framework in 2004 recognized the need to transform the National Liberation Council to become the Central Committee of the Movement with the immediate task of revising the SPLM draft constitution. It further emphasized that at least 25% of the membership of the Central Committee should be women and that youth should also be adequately represented.[4]While all these commitments were being made on paper, the reality of women’s inclusion and meaningful participation remained a myth during the CPA negotiation process. Despite women’s demands to be part of the negotiation team as primary stakeholders, the SPLM/A only had two women from their side, who were on “observers’ status”. Even though there were known prominent women’s associations and networks during this time, none were directly engaged in the negotiation as a stakeholder. The negotiations focused on “warring parties”; women had to use other channels, such as through committees and side engagements, to get their voices into the room.

Women’s mass mobilisation and organising for the referendum

Issue-based organizing and mobilization drove both Sudanese civil wars, eventually leading to an independent South Sudan. Despite the “military might”, which is the lens through which South Sudan’s history is told, and the signing of the CPA, South Sudan’s independence wouldn’t have been possible without the massive women’s mobilization and their coming out in numbers to vote, given they constituted most of the population. The SPLM, at this point, knew that without women coming out to vote, this last stage of the liberation struggle would not be achieved.[5] Women formed state-level networks to ease coordination and conducted rigorous women-focused civic engagement across Southern Sudan.[6]

Women continued to hold national, state, and community conferences to ensure that the referendum process was gender-informed, that women were educated on the voting process, and could actively participate in the referendum.[7]On different fronts, using different strategies, Southern Sudanese women did what they knew best; they put their differences aside, mobilized in numbers, organised, and ensured the vision for the “New Sudan”, which they would bare the biggest brunt of, was achieved.[8]As expected, women’s participation in voter registration was more than 50%.[9]

Feminist organising and movement building post-independence

The bar for the fight for women’s liberation was set high by women who advanced women’s rights under unimaginable conditions in an active civil war. South Sudan’s independence was simply the beginning of the journey for women whose freedom always came second throughout the liberation struggle because there was a “bigger cause” to focus on. There is one lesson South Sudanese women have learned from that experience. It is the fact that there will never be the “right time” for women’s rights because even in the “New Sudan” we call South Sudan, it’s been 12 years since independence, and women’s rights are still not one of the national priorities or top issues of concern.

South Sudan returned to civil war in 2013, just two years after independence, and remains unstable today. This means the security conditions under which women organizers operate have mostly stayed the same from the context in which they fought for their freedom in the liberation struggle. Today, South Sudanese women and girls are fighting for their liberation while actively contributing to nation-building and reconstruction.

Women continue to witness minor progressions in women’s representation and participation in peace processes and key political leadership positions.[10] However, the general reality for South Sudanese women and girls remains traumatizing: 65% experience physical and sexual violence;[11] 52% are married off before they turn 18; and enrollment, retention, and education completion remain low.[12] Other fundamental rights, such as rights to inherit or own property, to divorce and child custody, bodily autonomy, and sexual rights, remain a myth for many women and girls.

Building on the laid foundation

South Sudanese women and girls continue to build on the solid foundation women laid in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. They primarily focus on women’s political participation and representation and championing women’s rights through legislation. Women fought and increased the 25% quota for women’s representation to 35% during the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in 2018. Even though still below the set 35% quota, women’s representation in key political positions is at 26%, a small yet significant milestone, given how far women have come in participation and representation in institutionalised politics.[13]

After a decade of women lobbying and advocacy, South Sudan just recently became the 44th country to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), adding this to other international legal frameworks the country has ratified such as the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 to advance women’s rights. The Anti-Gender-Based Violence Bill was drafted in 2019 and submitted to the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs in 2020. It awaits the ministry’s processing to send it to Parliament for approval. The bill harmonises and consolidates Gender Based Violence (GBV) laws and removes anomalies between customary practices and statutory laws. It outlaws and regulates harmful customary and traditional practices.

In the same year, the draft bill was submitted to the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and the Judiciary of South Sudan declared the operationalisation of the first Gender-Based Violence specialised court in South Sudan to enhance justice and accountability for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. While this is a significant milestone, the effectiveness of these courts is debatable as follow-up mechanisms still need to be addressed. The bill has provisions and proposes simple procedures to ensure consistency in enforcing, monitoring, and coordinating GBV-related cases.

More young South Sudanese women are using art as a tool for resistance through poetry, spoken words, music, visual art, and painting, among other forms, to advance women’s rights and largely contribute to the reconstruction of social fabrics and nation-building. Initiatives exist such as Heroines Unspoken Tales, a digital platform that seeks to amplify, document, and share the journeys and stories of women through art and creativity; Baobab House, an art gallery and space by Abul Oyay that promotes cultural dialogue and holds exhibitions on women’s rights; and several individual young South Sudanese women are using music and poetry to contribute to campaigns on ending violence against women and girls.Women, especially those in NGOs, continue to build networks of support and solidarity regionally, continentally and internationally. Chapter V of the R-ARCSS calls for the establishment of three mechanisms for transitional justice: (1) the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing (CTRH); (2) the Hybrid Court of South Sudan by the African Union Commission; and (3) the Compensation and Reparations Authority (CRA) but very minimal progress has been made so far.

Key shifts and trends in the movement

One of the primary shifts post-independence is the NGO-ization of women’s mobilisation, organizing, and resistance. While women organized mostly through unions and associations during the liberation struggle for independence, today, South Sudan has more NGOs (national and international), especially women-led rights and civil society organizations that largely depend on foreign funding to sustain their work at the frontline of the women’s movement. Organising through self-sustainable unions and associations has primarily been left to women and girls in the informal economy who continue to organise and form networks of support through community associations/networks, faith-based, entrepreneurship, neighbourhood loans and savings groups, and several issue-based groups that are primarily self-sustainable.[13]

Given how NGOs operate, as mainly service provision focused, very minimal recognizable well-coordinated organizing and authentic feminist movement-building is happening across sectors in South Sudan. While sector-specific forms of coalition building and networks exist, for example, coalitions and networks of women-led and women’s rights organizations, women in business, media, and politics, very few cross-sectoral collaborations and alliance-building exist. There is also a massive disconnect between women in the formal and informal sectors, where most women are. While women and girls in the informal sector organise and mobilise through traditional unions and associations, they are disconnected from the more prominent women’s movement. They exist to coordinate themselves easily and extend support to each other but not necessarily to challenge oppressive systems and demand just and fair treatment.

The considerable presence of humanitarian and development aid operating directly and through local NGOs, often implementing unsustainable short-term projects, threatens feminist organizing and movement-building beyond NGO-ization. This also undermines women and girls organizing in the informal sector. So-called legitimate women’s groups and forms of organizing overshadow the formally unregistered made up of women with little formal education background, hindering them from taking space in ‘elite-women’ dominated NGO-based women’s rights spaces. Humanitarian and development aid coming through faith-based institutions, and many in South Sudan, is tied to upholding colonial religious values, often contradicting and limiting feminist advocacy, especially on reproductive and sexual rights.

NGO-ization of feminist organizing and mobilization can also be linked to the shrinking and restricted civic and democratic space. Just as Northern Sudan picked up from the British and continued to exercise oppressive colonial policies over the South, the current South Sudanese government uses the same policies and laws that the Khartoum-based government used to suppress its citizens’ civil rights and liberties. For example, a requirement is that any form of organising or mobilizing must be institutionalised (legally registered) and must obtain clearance from National Security to conduct activities such as workshops, training, assembling, demonstrating, marching, or protesting. It’s not enough to obtain consent; security personnel must be present in these activities to report on the activity/engagement. Harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, and killing of citizens challenging the status quote or demanding accountability and service provision are rife. Policing women’s bodies and their choice of dressing, among other restrictive measures, frustrates and makes civic organising and mobilizing a nightmare.