SUDAN: Seeking a Democratic South Sudan

Monday, December 14, 2009
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

The atmosphere is heavily charged with political tensions, alliances are already in the offing, expectations are high and the pressure for the country to achieve a successful transition from an interim government to a democratically elected one is immense.

South Sudan has paid a high price to reach this point, at which the Sudanese people can start to rebuild strong governing institutions. Institutions which can change the sad history of Southern Sudan. But as stakes rise at national level, there is vigorous grassroots debate on whether the gender agenda will bring about a more balanced government.

"When seats were reserved for women in 2005, there was a lot of excitement because the political process was going to reflect a more representative agenda on gender issues," says Hawa Mohammed, a hairdresser in Juba.

"But even now, we cannot show tangible evidence that there has been a visible shift in the gender agenda. The criteria for selecting these (nominated) women were not clear, but what is clear is that most of these women have been unable to manoeuvre the gender agenda through the male-dominated leadership."

Her remarks resonate with Joy Raphael, a politician from Central Equatoria State who intends to stand in the February 2010 elections.

"For governance to reflect efforts to accommodate women in decision-making at national and local levels, it is important to put several measures in place. "Other than increasing the number of women in public offices, there's a need to build the capacity of women for them to participate in leadership reform that touches on, say, parliament and the judiciary."

Raphael says it is a positive move to reserve seats for women, "but if the women selected cannot even promote the ratification and implementation of international and regional instruments that can help build the capacity of women, then that move does very little to our cause."

The results of the 2005 decision to reserve seats for women have brought mixed evaluation. There is positive feedback on empowering women with leadership positions, but the feeling among women at grassroots level is that there has not been real progress on the gender agenda.

The interim government had stipulated that in every state there should be 25 percent female representation, but only six out of the ten states met the requirement. Some fall short by only a few representatives, and Eastern Equatoria state, for instance, falls short by only three women.

The discontent among women with regard to who gets these reserved seats lies in the frustration they continue to experience in efforts to have their views accommodated in a most masculine political process.

It is not lost to women that having more of them in politics does not necessarily mean having women in positions of power. "There's a feeling that the level we had expected to reach in terms of women being heard in public debates has remained a dream," laments Sabina Dario Lokolong, representing Budi County, and a vocal member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

"We had for instance expected that through the women already in power, the fragmented women's movement would help convene women's meetings,where we could slowly learn to speak from a common agenda, and influence leadership from that position."

Lucy Luguga, United Nations Development Fund for Women director for South Sudan, says the gender agenda does indeed go beyond numbers.

"There's the issue of equitability, regardless of how many women there are in leadership, it's important that gender issues are dealt with in a manner that is just and fair, by both male and female leaders.

"Of course it is critical that the obvious gender gaps in governance narrow, and it is important that those already in positions of influence ensure there's a continued engendering process of the leadership structures."

With every day bringing the February election nearer, the issue of nominated women's capacity to lead, and decisions to settle for a certain person and not another, are bound to raise immense interest and debate.

The election law passed in 2008 clearly states that 60 percent of seats will be chosen at constituency level, and 40 percent will be reserved for proportional representation. This means 25 percent will go to women and the remaining 15 percent will be general seats.

Fears in the women's movement are rife that the selection process will be politicised to lock out women with strong political views and a capacity to influence the public.

"The root of discontent with some of the nominated women has been that they are placed in these positions, as ministers or just members of the interim committee, to hoodwink the large female population," claims Alice Michaels, executive director, Voice of Change.

"But in reality, it's not meant to improve the gender disparities for more equitable governance."

More importantly, these women are selected by the male leadership, which compounds the issue, according to Lokolong. "It is on these committees which determine selection that we need to have a number of women who understand what is at stake for the marginalised female population."

Despite the numerical advantage South Sudan women hold – they make up 60 percent of the population according to the national report on Millennium Development Goals – these numbers have not increased infiltration of positions from which they can influence governance.

It therefore calls for extensive civic education, since most of these women are unaware that real democracy calls for them to be political initiators of change, and not passive observers.