In a society like Sudan in which men occupy the vast majority of leadership positions, one might be surprised to know that it was women who made up the majority of voters in the South Kordofan state gubernatorial elections in May 2011. The Carter Center and the National Civic Forum (NCF) reported that in South Kordofan state's gubernatorial elections in May of 2011 the participation of women in voting was either equivalent to or exceeded that of men.
This is a remarkable but little acknowledged, let alone celebrated, achievement by the women of South Kordofan who mobilised women to vote in this strategically important conflict zone on the border between the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan. The achievement is outstanding not least given the limited opportunities and multiple constraints on women's public participation in this traditional and predominantly rural society, where illiteracy is so prevalent that some villages may only have a handful of women who can read.
The reports of the National Election Commission of Sudan and organisations that observed the elections provided no sex-disaggregated data on voter participation. The lack of attention, documentation and analysis of gender demographics in political participation, as in other areas, truly hinders our understanding of the dynamics of gender differentials and obstacles to promoting gender equality.
The Ru'ya ( Vision) Association played a key role in getting out the women's vote, and kept statistics and diligent records of its work, outreach and achievements.
Working in 54 villages within four localities of South Kordofan, namely Lagawa, Kadugli, Dilling and Heiban, Ru'ya provided civic and voter education to 5000 people who in turn disseminated information about the election system in their different communities. It trained 30 women in outreach, communication and non-violence in 13 of the 18 localities comprising the State of South Kordofan.
These women then mobilised other women to register as voters. Ru'ya's tracking of results shows their success in registering a total of 23,000 women voters for the elections. Another area of their election work consisted of helping ten women candidates from five parties with skills for campaigning and outreach and the development and endorsement of a state-wide joint women's agenda, agreed upon by women's representatives from all 12 political parties active in South Kordofan.
Some of the priorities articulated in the agenda were: the need for maintaining peace and opposing violence, adoption and ratification of international and regional women's rights conventions, maintaining continued and good relations between women in Sudan and the new state of South Sudan, women's economic empowerment, citizenship rights, rights of disabled women, freedom of movement and the right to dual - Sudanese and South Sudanese - citizenship.
Zeinab Blandia, the executive director of Ru'ya says, “anyone working with people has to understand and appreciate the circumstances and needs of the people she serves and design one's program accordingly to achieve results. ” In one of the many Skype chats I have had with her over the past weeks she told me, “we visited the villages and spent time there. We slept over and held our events at the time that suits our target groups. We often held our meetings in the evenings and at nights when women were done with their house chores and done planting and working on their plots.
We held our events in multiple locations as close to the location of the people as possible. We took our time delivering our sessions, allowed people to ask all the questions they had and made sure that they really understood the information and messages we conveyed to them.
We spent three to four hours on sessions that some other organizations delivered in 45 minutes.” Sound basic and easy? It is surprising how many organizations fail to abide by those basic principles, delivering their outreach based on cookie-cutter international models rather than responding to the specific needs of the communities they serve.
Ru'ya built its work for the elections around the large network of Social Solidarity Fund groups it had been establishing since 1996 in 57 villages. Women in these groups are part of a tight network that meets weekly in each locale to build organisational, economic and problem-solving skills, work on conflict resolution, and address problems and challenges that face the members of the groups, either collectively or individually.
As part of its work for peace and democracy Ru'ya also targeted neglected groups such as high school students who were often ignored in civic education efforts. The civic education sessions initially targeted women but ended up including both men and women as Ru'ya discovered a huge need among male voters as well. Ru'ya kept a politically neutral position and was careful not to favour or align with one political party or grouping over the other.
Even though it was the leading South Kordofan-based women's organization engaged in the elections, Ru'ya did not receive funding from donors like USAID which allocated $44 million between January 2009-2012 for electoral education in Sudan through the National Democratic Institute. Ru'ya implemented its programme with a minimal budget, receiving support only from a women's regional network, the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) and relying on its teams of individual volunteers and partner communities in South Kordofan to help register women to vote.
Zeinab told me "women are very effective and fast communicators. Once they decide that an issue is of importance to them, they get on to it, get the word out and mobilize others to join".
The elections in May were a critical flashpoint in the ensuing violence that has engulfed South Kordofan, the only oil producing region in the Republic of Sudan. Ru'ya was in the process of concluding the final report on its elections work when the Sudanese Army and allied paramilitary forces began their attack on South Kordofan's capital, Kadugli and other locations throughout the State, in June of this year. Ru'ya's offices were raided in the wake of the attack, their documents, computers and all their equipment stolen. Ru'ya's staff, had to flee the city among tens of thousands of other civilians. “We did not have time to collect any of our documents or belongings, we fled just with the clothes on our backs” Zeinab told me. Thus, compounding the problem of lack of documentation that national and international institutions have given to women's work in the South Kordofan elections, the internal documents which tell the history of this innovative movement have been nearly obliterated, the vital story of these women's activism existing now only in the scattered persons involved in the movement.
Now is the time that activists, aid workers, and oral historians must begin to gather this story, so its important lessons are not lost forever.
The resurgence of the conflict in South Kordofan has interrupted Ru'ya's work plans for the post election period and their work on the implementation of the adopted women's agenda. They have found themselves once again forced to confront the calamities of war and the multitude of challenges generated by a context of repression, insecurity, persecution, displacement and poverty.
While there is no end in sight for the horrors of systemic and cyclical conflict in South Kordofan, Ru'ya staff have now reconnected outside South Kordofan and are trying to find new ways of continuing their work inside South Kordofan and among displaced populations outside the State. They are trying to recover their documents and re-establish contact with their members and partners to find ways of reaching the communities they once served. They are navigating possible ways of helping and advocating for humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected populations from and within South Kordofan who are battling hunger and devastation. Ru'ya's staff, like other peace and human rights activists, continue to carry out their mission while fighting for their own survival and confronting multiple threats to their security.
Ru'ya has joined hands with other civil society organizations, a majority of which are women's organizations, to create the new Solidarity Initiative for Humanitarian Aid and Peace to demand a peaceful resolution to this conflict, the extension of humanitarian assistance and to work for reconciliation and peacebuilding.
Their message to the warring parties and to the international community is, according to Zeinab, “No to violence, devastation and conflict. End the war now. This conflict can only be resolved through peaceful means”. Ru'ya has been lobbying for a resumption of the negotiations. So far their requests have not been met with any concrete steps towards dialogue or attempts at peaceful conflict resolution. Rather, the government has cracked down on peaceful demonstrations such as that organized by the Solidarity Initiative, and arrested activists involved in the demonstration. Eight of the women arrested were brought to trial charged with participating in an unauthorized demonstration, public disturbance and directing a procession to a foreign entity, before being released.
“The situation is dire but we will never give up,” Zeinab told me. “We will continue our work and find a way to pursue our mission. We do not have an alternative but to continue fighting for peace. This is the only way forward.”
Let us hope that the work of these resilient women's organizations will attract the power of attention and gain support both locally and internationally. That more people - not least governments, policymakers and donors - begin to learn from, appreciate and support the important contribution that women's activism has made to increasing democratic participation, mitigating conflict and advancing peace in Sudan.
A tiny fraction of the money spent on militarised solutions to “security” would go a long way towards promoting peace and human security if invested in small women and peace groups – like Ru'ya - promoting peaceful conflict-resolution and democratic change.