Ann Itto, an inspiring woman forging a path for women in politics
At 58 years now, Dr. Ann Itto Leonardo remains an inspiration to the future generation of female leaders in South Sudan.
Being a female politician in a highly patriarchal society such as South Sudan is never easy. But more and more women are breaking down the gender-related barriers that held their predecessors back.
Dr. Ann, a senior SPLM member and former national minister of agriculture, is one of those strongest women. She is currently a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), representing South Sudan.
In this Q&A, Dr. Ann shares her experience as a politician and how she can inspire young women to join politics to help bridge the gender gap in the country.
Below are edited excerpts of her interview with Radio Tamazuj:
Q: Dr. Ann, where were you born?
A: Thank you very much, Radio Tamazuj. I was born in a small village called Pageri, about 25 miles from Nimule; it t is in Magwi County, Eastern Equatoria State. I was born in 1964; I am a mother of two daughters and a grandmother at the same time.
Q: Could you take us through your education journey?
A: I actually went to primary school in Pageri, and then I went to elementary school for girls in Nimule. After the Anyanya war broke out, I was forced to go and complete my primary education in Uganda. Then I went to King’s College Budo, which was one of the best secondary schools in Uganda.
When the Addis Ababa peace agreement was signed in 1972, instead of proceeding to S5 for two years in Uganda, we were all repatriated back to Sudan, where I joined the University of Khartoum because I had then qualified. I did science for one year and then ended up studying agriculture at the University of Khartoum. After graduation, I worked for two years at the University of Juba as a teaching assistant, and then I went to Imperial College in London, and I obtained a master’s degree in applied entomology, and I worked for two years after I came back, and then I went to do my PhD in entomology and post-harvest at Kansas State University.
Q: Who inspired you to join politics?
A: You know, the Anyanya war started in the 1960s when I was in Primary 3, and my family became refugees in northern Uganda. What I remember very well was that my sister died from a curable disease because we were drinking from streams. There was no clean drinking water. My mum did not have money to take her to the hospital, and she died. In my mind, as a child at that time, the only way to escape poverty was to go to school. It was at that time that I decided to commit myself to school.
The whole thing is, that choosing politics started gradually. It was not because I have seen so and so. I got concerned about my livelihood and my family, which was poverty-stricken and when I was in Uganda, I saw what education could do to people, so I went for education. But what triggered me to join politics was in 1991 when my elder daughter was in primary one in Khartoum. One day my daughter returned home from school while crying. She came and asked me in Arabic, saying, mama ana kusha? (Mum, am I rubbish?).
When I asked her to explain what happened, she told me her colleagues in school were calling her rubbish. When Omar al-Bashir took over power in Sudan, there was a program called Sura Magluba, which was a message to destroy everything, including cultures. So my daughter felt offended because of that name, and I just started to think about the future of my children and removed her from that school the very same day.
Around that time, SPLM/SPLA had a very strong radio program that explained the reasons why southerners were fighting. It used to describe the rights, including the rights of women, so this is when I decided to take action and join the fight.
In 1994 around September, I left Khartoum, went through Nairobi, left my children in Uganda and went to join SPLM/A. So this is how I entered politics.
Q: As a member of EALA, what are you doing for South Sudan women?
A: I am actually the chair of the women's caucus in the East African Legislative Assembly in Arusha, and now we are developing a strategic plan for the caucus. Although there are treaties that have very good articles that provide for economic empowerment and inclusion of women into all processes of integration, we see that even in the secretariat, there are still very few women working there. The situation of women is still very bad, so we have created women's caucus to focus on women and issues affecting East African women and to see how best they can be empowered in leadership and the economic sector to change the situation.
I am happy that until our term ends, I will be chair of the women’s caucus to develop this strategic plan; it will also be implemented together with our national parliament in Juba, especially the women's caucus that is connected to the state parliaments and civil society organizations.
Q: How will women in the rural areas benefit from this strategic plan?
A: Our women in the rural areas will be engaged by the national parliament in Juba because we cannot work directly with them because we are a regional parliament. The support we have has to go through the national parliament; those are constituencies of the national parliament. Whatever program we get, we have to work with the national parliament.
Now we are working on the strategic plan, which contains training for women. It is for all the partner states, not South Sudan alone. We have seven partner states who are members of the East African Community.
Q: As a female leader, what plans do you have for young women who aspire to join politics?
A: I am glad you are asking me that question. Until recently, I have been working through the national caucus and the civil society group that invited me to come and talk to women, give my insights and share my experiences. I have been doing that, but since May this year, I established an organization called Mara Muhim (a woman is important), which is an organization for women empowerment.
I put it together so that I can share my experiences. It is a centre, which has several things such as programmes on research, data and documentation. We will also carry out research on women leaders and what they want to do. When we get the funding, we will also go to the state level and spend some time with women who aspire to join politics but do not know how to break through. So the organization is operating in Juba.
Q: How do you see the political parties regarding women’s representation?
A: Our political parties are not creating enough forums for women to understand who they are. I am trying to say women are watching every political party in South Sudan. Women are very cautious in politics, so the parties must do a lot to attract more women to their membership. So what I want to start in my program is to introduce to women how political parties work and what types of political parties they can join. We need to change how political parties behave because some parties do not encourage women who want to progress in politics.
Q: As an MP in EALA, in your view, what hinders South Sudan from benefiting from the East African Community (EAC)?
A: We need to provide leadership; this is number one, and also participating fully and taking care of our own interests. It is not just about our presence, but there are training opportunities in customs, trade, finance and banking system, and so forth. If we train our people and take this seriously, it will save South Sudan money because you will not spend money again to train people because you will use the money paid as membership fees.
We are not benefiting from the East African Community because we are not participating. Also the other factor is that the budget of the EAC is based on the membership contribution. Out of the five years we are in EAC, South Sudan managed to pay for only one year.
We are not benefiting from training because we are not participating in meetings.
Q: How much money South Sudan owes EAC?
A: One-year contribution is about 8 million USD, and this money should come from each member state to run projects while some of the money is used for health and infrastructure, now, there are youth ambassadors and youth speakers, and there are cross-border women traders.
All this money is taken from member states to be put into programmes. Every year, there is a deficit in the budget. Some programs are not implemented because some member states do not pay their contributions. We have enormous resources as South Sudan, but because of war and the lack of a plan on how we can benefit from the East African market, we are not benefiting as we should.
South Sudan is required to pay more than 39 million USD to the East African Community as membership fees. I do not know the exact figure, but it is around 39 million USD, which will increase by July this year. What happened is that in last month’s EAC summit, they cancelled 20 million USD on the condition that South Sudan pays 15 million USD immediately, and then the 20 million USD would be written off. Now we do not know how far it is gone, but what I know so far is that what we owe EAC is 15 million USD. In 2022-2032, we start afresh, but we have to pay the 15 million USD.
Q: How is this affects your work as an MP?
A: It affects us a lot because sometimes we miss employment opportunities as South Sudanese, and sometimes people apply, but they ask us to pay. As South Sudan MPs, in our debates, when we criticize things and talk about how things should be done in EAC, they do not take us seriously because we have not paid. It makes our working environment very difficult as South Sudan MPS. They always tell us that South Sudan is rich and has oil money while the other member states only rely on taxes, but they still pay. Sometimes we tell them that our government is implementing other priorities like the peace agreement, but they tell us that go back to implement your priorities first if you are not ready. So it does affect us a lot because we cannot talk with confidence about some benefits that should come to us as South Sudan.
We can make noise as parliamentarians, but our Ministry of East African Affairs does not even attend some meetings. One of our most embarrassing meetings was recently when the Ugandan Minister of East African Affairs said, no payment, no votes, no payment, no money, no payment, no talk. It is just like shut up.
Q: Did you follow up with the government on the payment of its share to EAC?
A: Yes, we follow up and engage, although it is not our job as parliamentarians. Our job is oversight and representation. It is the job of our Ministry of East African Affairs, and part of it is for the secretary general of EAC, who talks to the member states to pay their contribution. So EAC is not about government only, it has youth and women participation, so our role is to create awareness about the activities and projects that are there and how our people can participate in integration because many people do not know.
Q: How can South Sudan women benefit from scholarships offered by EAC?
A: For scholarships, they are advertised; our women do not go to the internet. EAC has a website; whenever there are scholarships for EAC member states, they are announced. It is mostly boys who are benefiting. I have seen some South Sudanese women, but mostly boys are the ones benefiting, so if you are qualified, you can just apply directly.
Q: What is your final message to the women in South Sudan?
A: As citizens, you have equal rights to participation and responsibility in transforming what is happening in the country. My advice to women is, do not fear politics. But before you get into it, inform yourself very well. You need to know how political parties work. You need to understand how to support your interests but do not wait for somebody to call you. Begin to play a role because this is your country. Thank you.