How will the outcome of the South Sudan referendum affect the prospects for women's participation and activism in the North and South?

This week, South Sudan is again going to the polls, this time to vote in a referendum on secession from the North. The preliminary result should be known by 15th January, and will mark one of the final stages of the historic 2005 agreement to end the long-standing conflict between North and South Sudan. All eyes will be on this vote, which is widely seen as likely to result in the South’s separation from the North. How will this shape women’s lives in North and South Sudan? And how have they changed since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)?

On the one hand, this referendum represents the latest stage in a series of reforms since the signing of the CPA, including the development of new interim constitutions (which include Bills of Rights) and elections in which women can compete in far greater numbers than before. In this context, secession for the South could present additional opportunities to enhance and strengthen Southern Sudanese women’s ability to participate in public life. On the other hand, there appears to be a growing divergence in women’s experiences, between North and South, and between elite and grassroots women. There are real dangers that these divides will continue to grow, whatever the outcome of Sunday’s vote.

Progress since the signing of the CPA

Since gaining independence in 1956, Sudan has been characterised by ongoing conflict and tensions, and fluctuations between military and civilian rule. Historic imbalances between the North and the South led to the first North-South civil war (1955-1972), followed by the second North-South civil war (1983-2005) and the Darfur crisis which began in 2003. Gender inequalities are most starkly shown in the experiences of high levels of violence against women during these conflicts. This includes high instances of rape and domestic violence, in Darfur and elsewhere.

The signing of the CPA ended the North-South war, paving the way for new forms of government, new Constitutions for the North and South and historic elections. Importantly, it meant some cessation of conflict, although insecurity remains an ongoing concern in Darfur and different areas of Southern Sudan. While many hoped that the CPA would mark a change in conditions (for women and men), the negotiation process was widely criticised for excluding women. This resulted in the CPA being seen as gender blind by women in Northern and Southern Sudan. Notably, gender inequality was not adequately addressed in discussions of power and wealth sharing.

Nevertheless, the political process unleashed by the CPA appears to have opened new spaces for women’s activism. For example, it may have helped spur women’s activism in later negotiations. The realisation that the CPA would not commit to gender specific targets seems to have encouraged women’s groups to mobilise in Darfur during the Abuja negotiations and during later negotiations around the drafting of new constitutions, particularly in Southern Sudan.

In both the North and South, mobilisation by women has had an impact in securing the principle of gender equality in the Bills of Rights in the Interim Constitutions. This has been no small achievement. It is more generously spelt out in the Interim Constitution of the South, although in both ambivalence remains regarding civil rights, especially in references to women’s rights in marriage, inheritance, land ownership, divorce and regarding custody of children, which have been left to the discretion of Sharia law in the North and customary law in the South.

In addition, the CPA established a process for reforming the electoral process and holding new elections (scheduled for 2009, but eventually held in 2010). This again presented greater opportunities for women’s participation. In the South, a quota system was incorporated into the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan. In the North, a quota system was achieved only as part of political negotiations around the new electoral law. These achievements represented only a partial success for women’s groups, who had sought to secure women’s inclusion in the party lists but had to make do with their inclusion under specific women’s lists instead.

External actors, including donor agencies and international civil society networks, have also played important roles in supporting greater activism for women, something which is especially the case in Southern Sudan. In particular, an influx of donor resourcing (particularly to the South) has meant that women’s groups and organisations can access resources, training, and networks previously off limits. For example, a multi-donor trust fund in Southern Sudan has committed $10million and aims to support the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare in developing and implementing gender policies and strategies as well as improving women’s access to existing economic opportunities, (although results are not yet unclear).

Growing divergence among women

At the same time, the diversity of women’s experiences across Sudan needs to be recognised. Prominent women’s activists and researchers, such as Professor Balghis Badri or Amel Adelhaib have highlighted differences between elite and often highly educated women and the vast majority at the grassroots.

Distinctions can be made between elite women in civil society organisations and those who occupy positions of public office or in political parties. The former grow out of sometimes long histories of women’s non-governmental organisations (as in the North) or recent burgeoning of these organisations with funding from the donor community in the South. Within this group, there is wide diversity. In North Sudan, women’s groups include: those who advocate more secular forms of democracy; pro-democracy Muslim women’s organisations such as the Republican sisters who accept a closer link between state and religion; or those associated with the ruling party such as the General Union for Sudanese Women. Women in political parties or occupying public office include those in the ruling parties in North and South. Some of the smaller opposition parties also include women within their ranks, such as the Umma party and the Democratic People’s Union in the North. In varying degrees across parties, however, women consistently continue to have limited space to lead decision-making processes.

Women at the grassroots in the North and South comprise the vast majority of Sudanese women. To date, many of the achievements described above seem to have provided new opportunities (and new access to resources) primarily for elite women, either within the state or outside of it. For many women at the grassroots, their voice remains invisible, and they often face multiple forms of discrimination, violence and general vulnerability. However, even here there are differences. In some cases, these women have found economic opportunities and new independence as a result of conflict and patterns of displacement, as Balghis Badri notes in relation to Darfuri women traders.

There is also significant divergence between the experiences of women in the North and the South. While the North has a longer and more established history of women’s activism, the enabling environment in the South appears to be a more open one. This partly reflects the fact that the Government of Southern Sudan has adopted a formal commitment to advance issues of women’s empowerment, in line with the legacy of John Garang, who supported women’s equality as part of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army project. It also reflects differing histories of the two regions. Northern Sudan has experienced an essentially authoritarian regime which has significantly affected women’s experiences and led to a progressive reduction of the political space they can occupy; the South has experienced crippling civil war but also growing acceptance of women as political actors (not least where they are seen to have earned their positions by fighting alongside men in previous conflict). Finally, the massive increase in donor activity in Southern Sudan since the signing of the CPA, and related large increase in civil society activity, has also meant significant increases in resourcing and networks for women’s groups and organisations. Here again, however, there are differences between the experiences of elite women in urban centres and the majority in rural communities which still face multiple forms of discrimination.

Moreover, there are ongoing structural obstacles faced by women in the South, including greater challenges in human development outcomes than the North (such as levels of education, access to basic services and so on) as well as the persistence of social attitudes to women which can discourage their participation in public life. While there are higher numbers of women in government positions, they still struggle to access key levels of decision making and do not occupy many of the critical government ministries. Therefore, while there appears to be a more promising environment for women than currently in the North, significant constraints still exist for a range of women.

Thus the implications of the South’s secession in terms of women’s participation and activism remain unclear. On the one hand, if Southern Sudan is to secede from the North, it may open further opportunities for Southern Sudanese women to push for greater political and social change, although it will also create a fragile new state with an uncertain future, at least in the short to medium term. In the North, secession could lead to the further retrenchment of fundamentalist views and President Bashir has indicated that it could mean Islamic law is implemented more fully. This has led to fears of a further narrowing of the political space for women, in light of North Sudan’s recent history.

As the international community and the international media focuses its attention on the South, the future of Northern Sudan - and women’s roles within it - remains undetermined and risks international neglect. And whatever the outcome of the referendum, real risks remain of a growing divergence between the experiences of and roles for women in Northern and Southern Sudan and at different levels of society.