The African Union has declared 2010 the Year of Peace and Security in Africa, and will soon launch the African Decade of Women. What better opportunity to act on these pledges than at the 15th African Union Summit, being held later this month in Kampala, Uganda? The upcoming referendum in Sudan gives African leadership an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to improving the lives of women on this continent by ensuring that they actively and freely participate in the referendum.
Southern Sudanese will go to the polls to decide whether to remain a part of a unified Sudan or secede and become Africa's newest country. Given that Sudan is Africa's largest country bordered by nine countries, also plagued by conflict, rampant corruption and stunted development it behooves our leaders to prioritize Sudan.
News coming out of Sudan in the last few months paints a bleak picture: the security situation in Darfur is deteriorating, the Darfur peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar are barely limping along, and the recent national elections were well below international standard. There are just six months remaining to the referendum that will impact the future of millions of Africans.
Recently the Sudanese government appointed the African Union High Level Panel for Implementation in Sudan led by former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki to facilitate negotiations on Sudan's referendum. Mr Mbeki and the Panel are charged with leading negotiations between the ruling National Congress Party and the Southern Sudanese Liberation Movement in the South on all outstanding issues in the lead up to the referendum.
Mbeki and the Panel have a big responsibility. They must support the Sudanese government and the Sudanese people to ensure an inclusive, transparent, and comprehensive process. The referendum will be dealing with issues that are of vital consequence to the people of Sudan, including the division of national economic resources, the redefining of citizenship, and border demarcation. The process must be, above all, inclusive.
And an integral part of the responsibility to be inclusive is ensuring that those most affected by the referendum have a voice namely, Sudanese women.
Achieving lasting peace and security in Sudan is not possible without women's full inclusion and especially within decision-making processes. Yet, up to now, women are almost invisible.
Following April's elections in Sudan, only two of 35 cabinet ministers and six of 42 ministers for state are women. There are no women at the decision-making level in the Darfur negotiations at Doha a process that is plagued by problems and proving to be ineffectual. And now there is a conspicuous lack of women in formal leadership positions for the referendum.
Indeed, of the nine people appointed by the Sudanese government to the Referendum Commission, there is only one woman. This is far from the 30 percent advocated for by Mbeki and his Panel, the 25% demanded by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and well below international standards.
2010 not only marks the start of the African Union Decade of Women but also the 10-year anniversary of United Nations Security Council's resolution 1325, which mandates women's full participation in peace processes. In short, there is simply no excuse for women's exclusion from current peace negotiations on Darfur nor from the upcoming referendum or other decision-making processes within Sudan.
Thus far, the work of Mbeki and his Panel has demonstrated an understanding of why Sudanese women need to be at the forefront of all conflict-resolution processes, in Darfur and across Sudan. This commitment to women's leadership must be renewed and acted upon as the Panel's work on the referendum moves forward.
The Panel and the African leaders supporting Mbeki and his colleagues have a historic opportunity to demonstrate their support to Sudanese women.
In declaring 2010 the Year of Peace and Security in Africa, the African Union set the gauntlet to take extraordinary measures to engage in activities to promote and consolidate peace processes across the continent.
What better time is there for the AU to demonstrate its commitment to Sudan's peace process by demanding greater space for Sudanese women to play a vital role?