By Danielle B. Goldberg
March 19, 2013 - Hon. Dr. Priscilla Joseph Kuch, Deputy Minister of Gender, Child and Social Welfare for the Republic of South Sudan, views violence against women as one of the major obstacles to the country’s development.
She discussed women, peace and security in South Sudan last week with the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). Dr. Kuch and members of her delegation were visiting New York City for the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
The discussion was chaired by Danielle Goldberg, Program Coordinator at the Program on Peace-Building and Rights and moderated by the David L. Phillips, the Program’s Director, as part of the Two Sudans Forum, supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace Public Education for Peacebuilding Support Initiative.
The Two Sudans Forum, launched with ISHR Visiting Scholar Ahmed Hussain Adam, is designed to facilitate dialogue between scholars, intellectuals, civil society leaders, media representatives and persons interested in challenges facing the Two Sudans. The objective is to envision and promote a strategic and peaceful relationship between two viable states.
Dr. Kuch praised South Sudan’s approach to women’s issues in its Transitional Constitution, while noting that in practice, women and girls continue to experience widespread violence, discrimination and marginalization. Such violations are not only an abuse of human rights; they also impede the progress and participation of women in the new state’s economic and social development.
She also emphasized that more needed to be done to comprehensively address the security of women in South Sudan. “For men, [security] is about borders and defenses; for women, it is about health care, access to water, education and sustenance,” she said.
Dr. Kuch raised a number of concerns related to women’s security in South Sudan. She referenced a recent survey indicating that violence against women has increased 37% in rural areas and 47% in cities. She observed that years of war leading to independence has created a culture of violence. While rape was not a traditionally used as an instrument of war, there have been more prominent cases of rape in South Sudan’s troubled Jonglei state over the last year.
In Abyei, approximately 32,000 people, mostly women and children, have been abducted in Abyei by the Misseriya people. “We were trying to retrieve them, though they were not part of negotiations,” she said. The abductees continue to be subjected to violence and other malpractices.
Dr. Kuch identified child marriage as a major concern for the government. Despite South Sudan’s Child Act, which clearly stipulates that girls below the age of 18 should not be married, child marriage is widespread, and jeopardizes the economic and educational progress of women and girls, as well as their health and security. She says that the perception of culturally accepted norms must be altered, including men’s understanding of what it means to be a child, and the value parents place on girls’ education.
She identified economic empowerment as key to the development and independence of women, correlating poverty with the toleration of domestic abuse and early marriage.
Dr. Kuch spoke at length about the role of women in politics. “Women are in leadership roles, but decisions are made by men,” she said. The Transitional Constitution guarantees that 25% of seats in decision making bodies are held by women; however, women remain dependent on powerful men in political parties. Also, “There is a problem of capacity for women. 90% of women are illiterate.” Given that English is now the official language, she called for an emergency literacy program for women.
Increasing women’s role in peace-building is a priority for the Deputy Minister. “Women weren’t part of the negotiations, but want to be part of a security based commission,” she said. They are well situated to report on security needs; many cross the border regularly because they are married to men from across the border and have family in Sudan.
In January, women from Sudan and South Sudan formed the Coalition of Women Leaders, supported by the Institute for Inclusive Security, to review Agreements signed in September 2012 by the two countries. “It’s a continuation of what we used to do during the war,” said Dr. Kuch. “They are seeking peaceful coexistence.”
Working to ensure that women’s voices are heard, the Ministry of Gender, along with UN Women and local and national organizations have held two meetings on developing a National Action Plan for UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which affirms women’s participation in peace processes. Successful implementation of the plan will require women to know their rights and work together more as a unified bloc, both within South Sudan, and with women in Sudan.
David Phillips pledged Columbia University’s support to the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare in its efforts to promote women’s rights as a key component to peace, security and development in South Sudan. Columbia is also interested in promoting a dialogue, exploring practical areas of cooperation between the women of South Sudan and Sudan.
The author is Program Coordinator of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.