Today, the world welcomes its newest country: the Republic of South Sudan. This new nation in the heart of Africa is the historic result of a peaceful, popular vote on independence, in which roughly 99% of people living in Sudan's southern regions elected to split from the Northern, Arab government that had ruled over them -- and engaged in a brutal civil war against them -- for decades. The legacy from Africa's longest civil war is chilling: 4 million displaced, 2 million killed and 2 million women raped. Provided for in the official peace accord that formally ended the war in 2005, this vote represented the first opportunity for southerners to articulate their own vision for the future, in peace.
Women experience war and peace differently from men. For women, war means mass displacement, the threat and often the grim reality of sexual violence, the loss of husbands and family members and resulting task of providing for families without formal skills or training for the task. For women, peace means less the signing of an armistice and more the resumption of life's core activities--jobs, feeding children, bringing up future generations free of violence. This is no different in South Sudan, where independence is an important symbol of peace, equality and the opportunity for men and women alike to determine their own destiny. In the words of my colleague, Women for Women International's Country Director for Sudan, Karak Mayik, “Without women, we would never have achieved peace, or independence. Without the voice of women, there would be no South Sudan.”
It's true. Women have been a tremendous force for peace and active architects of the new republic. 52% of the voters during the referendum were women, and many women returned to the South after years of displacement to take part in the historic vote. 60% of the families that returned to South Sudan to vote in the referendum were led by a single woman. Karak tells me what a source of inspiration it was for her to watch her sisters proudly walk together to the polling stations, showing their community the importance of their participation in the historic vote. For a woman who spent too many years of her life in a camp for displaced persons in the Northern capital of Khartoum, Karak found new hope watching women in her hometown stand for hours to cast their first vote.
Despite relative exclusion from formal peace talks, women have campaigned tirelessly for their voices to be heard. Women's civil society groups organized around the peace talks and campaigned for a leadership role in the new government. Moving forward, the Constitution states that 25% of the seats in the legislature must be held by women, and as of 2010, 34% of the Southern Parliamentary seats are held by women. Research shows that governments with higher percentages of women in power correlate with decreased corruption and increased attention to humanitarian and development needs -- key priorities for a new country emerging from war and needing to build services, infrastructure and a peaceful future. “Security, development and education are the top priorities for women of South Sudan now,” says Mayik. “And for us to achieve a democratic South Sudan, this requires women's active participation in all community and national matters.”
Security, development and education is timely agenda for South Sudan. True peace is yet to be achieved, and the new country ranks solidly among the bottom of global development rankings. Since the referendum results were announced, an unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout disputed territories along the border between North and South. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei, a disputed border region, and at least another 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Northern Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. Reports indicate that aerial bombings have killed civilians, as Northern forces use outdated, Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft and roll bombs out of the back. Accuracy is almost impossible, and civilian deaths are common, if unintended.
Development indicators paint a similarly grim picture, particularly for women. The 2010 State Department Human Rights Report on Sudan points to violence and discrimination against women as a growing problem in the South. The new nation is home to the world's highest maternal mortality rate, roughly 80% female illiteracy, and widespread child marriage and female genital cutting.
A humble beginning, yet one marked by tremendous optimism for the future. For my colleague, agriculture trainer Rebecca Yar, the female farmers she works with in the Southern countryside are laying the groundwork for a self-sufficient country, creating much-needed sources of food and income in South Sudan's under-developed rural areas. Women are also educating future generations and caring for the sick -- in short, leading the development their new nation desperately needs. According to a UN report, enrollment in schools has increased threefold since before the 2005 peace agreement, and we know women are key to that effort.
On this Independence Day, there is much work to be done, and women can lead the way forward. “This is the end of a war, but it is only the beginning for my new country,” says Mayik, “we cannot do it without the women, and the women cannot do it alone. The violence must stop. Women must be supported in our efforts to create a peaceful future for our families, communities and this new country, starting today.”