Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 8 September 2011

Women and political participation in South Sudan

By Jane Kani Edward

September 7, 2011 — The participation of women in political and public affairs of South Sudan is a fairly recent phenomenon. This is partly due to the fact that, women involvement in politics was/is not seen as a woman’s prerogative. Recent studies in this field as well as my experience growing up in South Sudan reveal that women and men occupy different and unequal positions and power relations both within the family and society at large. For example, while women are usually relegated to their stereotypical roles of nurturing and caring, men assume political positions, conduct business, serve in the military and perform other roles deemed male’s. Such gender configurations and/or different positions of women and men are shaped and reinforced by societal cultural norms and practices, religion, customs, perceptions, socialization process, and colonial patriarchal practices and policies.

However, since the second half of the twentieth century, women in South Sudan have been able to venture into the political arena, business, and other occupations that were previously considered solely reserved for men. Women’s visibility in politics, however, though limited was evident in the Southern Sudan Regional Government established after the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972. For instance, some women from South Sudan joint the Women Socialist Union created during the Nimieri’s regime (1969-1985).

The major breakthrough for women’s participation in politics came after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 which stipulated a 25 percent for women’s representation in all levels of government in recognition of their roles and contributions to the liberation struggle. The interim period (2005-2011) witnessed an increase in the number of women in decision-making positions of the former Government of Southern Sudan. Currently, there are more than 95 female MPs in the recently reconstituted National Legislative Assembly, and five women in the newly formed Council of States. In the newly formed government of the Republic of South Sudan, there are five female ministers and nine deputy ministers. Similarly, there are women who serve as head of commissions, presidential advisors, and other higher positions in the national and states governments.

However, women’s involvement in politics is not free of contestations and challenges. Women still face numerous challenges some of which are socio-cultural, while others relate to different status of women – such as differential educational status, age, marital status, class, family background, ethnic and regional variations, economic, etc.

OBSTACLES TO WOMEN’S POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

1) Cultural practices and Perceptions

Cultural practices and perceptions in South Sudan represent major obstacles to women’s participation in politics and other public affairs. Practices such as early, forced, and/or arranged marriages hinder women’s advancement and empowerment. Such practices, for instance, limit women’s chances to continue education which will allow them to pursue careers in politics and other professions. In addition, cultural perceptions and patriarchal tendencies that view women as suited only for domestic responsibilities while involvement in politics is seen as men domain further hinder women’s efforts to pursue political role.

2) The Gendered Division of Labor

The gendered division of labor, which puts heavy burden on women’s shoulders further contributes to the marginalization of women in politics and public life. Dr. John Garang indeed was the first South Sudanese leader to acknowledge how gendered division of labor places more burden on women’s lives. In his speech during the signing of the CPA in 2005, he noted, “. . . women in Sudan as elsewhere in the world are marginalized of the marginalized whose suffering goes beyond description. The Sudanese rural woman, for example, gets up at five O’clock in the morning, to walk five kilometers, just to bring five gallons of water after five hours walk, spends another five hours working on the family farm, and five more hours making the family meal.”

3) Customary Laws

Customary laws in the South also have influenced the role of women in public life, in particular political participation. The existing customary laws make it harder for women to escape the bondage of domestic roles which relegated them to the status of second class citizens. It is true that under customary law women are valued and respected as mothers. They are also valued and cherished as daughters because they are expected to bring wealth to the family upon marriage. Women are also seen as guardians of culture and traditions and are charged with imparting cultural values to the younger generation. However, this accord of respect is not usually complemented by many aspects of customary laws pertaining to women’s lives. These same aspects of the law are sometimes used to marginalize women’s voices and rights, as well as to justify women’s exclusion from political participation and decision-making process.

4) High Illiteracy Rate among Women

The high rate of illiteracy among women in South Sudan is another obstacle to women political participation. According to the Ministry of Education’s report of July 2011, the illiteracy rate in South Sudan is 73% and women represent the overwhelming majority. Other estimates even put the figure as high as 80%. This is a very high percentage given the population size of the country. Several factors contributed to such high illiteracy rate, among them the consequences of the 22-year civil war during which many educational institutions were destroyed, as well as some cultural perceptions that undervalue girls and women’s education.

5) Women’s Differentiated Personal Locations

It is to be acknowledged that women in South Sudan are not a homogenous group. Differences exist based on educational achievement, financial situation, age, marital status, political party affiliation, ethnic and regional affiliation, religion, and other forms of social difference. These social differences in turn shape and influence women’s decisions, their chances, and the choices they make regarding their participation in political activities and public life at large.

6) Women Themselves

Women can also act as hindrance to their own advancement and empowerment, especially when they internalize the long held assumptions and perceptions that politics and other public affairs are only for men while, women’s place is at home. Internalizing such assumptions negatively affect women’s attitudes toward politics. For example, women might begin to dislike and/or feel reluctant to involve in politics. Those women who venture into politics face many challenges and criticism from men and sometime from women themselves. For example, women who are politically active, are sometimes labeled as “unfeminine,” “irresponsible wives and/or mothers,” “loose women,” etc.

OPPORTUNITIES AND WAY FORWARD

As indicated earlier, one of the major breakthroughs for women in South Sudan is the recognition and acknowledgment of their roles and contributions to the liberation struggle. For instance, the CPA provided for 25% women’s representation in all levels of government. Although such a provision is welcomed as a positive development in the history of the country, women should not sit back and settle for what is given to them. Rather, they should aspire for more representation. After all, who decided the 25%? Therefore, women should interrogate and question the logic behind the 25% provision. In reality women represent the majority of the population of South Sudan. Women’s groups should also think seriously about some of the challenging questions related to their future role. For instance, what role women would play as MPs, ministers, head of commissions, etc? Whose agenda they promote, and what do they want to achieve? Forging a consensus and platform by women for women in South Sudan is a key for securing their political participation and advancing their vested interests.

The new nation of South Sudan is beginning to chart its future. It is important, therefore, for women in South Sudan and abroad to urgently double their efforts to ensure effective, meaningful and broad representation of women in all levels of government, as well as confront gendered power relations to guarantee gender equality. Women also need to address the numerous socio-cultural and economic barriers facing women in general and women politicians in particular. But these steps cannot be realized unless women take the lead in effecting change.

CONCLUSION

Some of the issues that need both immediate and long-term commitment of women are the following:

1. Development of women’s platform or women’s agenda for the next 5-10 years. This platform should address both strategic gender interests – that is, those interests that women share in challenging and eliminating power inequalities based on gender; and practical gender needs – which emerge from everyday lived experiences of women, based on a gendered division of labor. In the process of developing the women’s agenda, women need to identify some of the customary, legal, cultural, political and economic obstacles to women advancement in South Sudan. Some of these obstacles include, but not limited to the following:

(a) Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in all aspects of society including social, cultural, economic, and political.
(b) Elimination of gender based violence imbedded in South Sudan’s cultural practices and customary laws pertaining to women’s rights and well-being.

(c) Outlawing early, arranged, and/or forced marriage to allow girls and women to continue education and pursue careers in politics and other professions.

(d) Enact policies to end work-place sexual harassment, abuse, intimidation of women in public life.

(e) Development of gender-sensitive public institutions that cater for women specific needs and situations.

(f) Improve women’s economic conditions through creating economic programs such as small-credit unions that cater for specific needs of women in urban and rural areas.

(g) Develop and promote an inclusive and gender-sensitive curriculum, educational environment and teaching methods that are reflective of the diversity of South Sudan people and that respect the rights of girls and women, and

(h) Articulate a transformative political project that seeks to confront male power domination in all its dimensions.

2. Encourage women’s involvement in politics through joining political parties. This is important partly because political parties are the gatekeepers to women’s participation in politics.

3. Formation of a strong and effective national women’s organization or movement that brings together women from all different regions, political parties and civil society is critical given the fact that South Sudan lacks such organization. The task of this women’s organization is to develop and promote the women’s agenda stated above; articulate the differences between political parties and women’s movement; and address challenges facing women in South Sudan.

4. Convening of a national women’s conference that brings also women and women’s organizations that are not necessarily subscribed to SPLM or other parties’ position to discuss and define strategic women’s platform in South Sudan.

Dr. Jane Kani Edward is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of African Immigration Research at Fordham University, Bronx, NY. She is the author of Sudanese Women Refugees: Transformations and Future Imaginings, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; and several book chapters and articles. She can be reached at: kanilado@yahoo.ca.