Opinion | South Sudanese Women Thrive Amid Obstacles
Prolonged armed conflicts, displacement, and refugee experiences have shaped the history of South Sudanese women. Women and girls bear the brunt of the successive civil wars since the 1950s. They are often subjected to gender-based and sexual abuses, intimidation, poverty, and unimaginable suffering by armed forces. However, amid war, displacement, and societal destructions, South Sudanese women find ways to improve their conditions and confront patriarchal tendencies, sociocultural, economic, and political challenges stacked against them.
South Sudanese women’s struggles for equal rights have a long history. Prior to the declaration of South Sudan’s independence in 2011, women in South Sudan did not benefit from the urban-based Sudanese women’s movement of the 1940s and 1950s, due to exclusionary educational policies of British colonial administration and the successive Khartoum-based governments. In the 1940s, the colonial government of the Anglo-Egyptian rule (1899–1956) took some limited measures to improve education in the South. Although educating girls was not a priority at the time, several schools for girls were open, including Maridi First Intermediate School for Girls in Equatoria, and Santa Teresa Elementary School for Girls in Wau, Bahr El-Ghazal. These schools attracted a number of girls to enroll. However, the outbreak of civil war in the South at the dawn of Sudan’s independence in1955, coupled with persistent neglect of the educational sector, women’s education was stalled.
Following the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972, the South witnessed relative peace and political stability for a decade. Thus, girls’ schools such as Juba Girls, Lui, and Mbili Secondary Schools, attracted many girls across South Sudan. Some girls also joined coeducation secondary schools, such as Juba Commercial and Loka Secondary Schools, while others attended girls’ secondary schools in the North such as Al-Rufa’a Secondary School for Girls. These developments led to a gradual numerical increase of female students and secondary school graduates.
Women who returned from exile after 1972, joined the University of Khartoum to complete their studies. They include Victoria Yar Alor the first South Sudanese woman to study at the university, and Mrs. Agnes Lukudu, among others. The opening of the University of Juba in 1977, saw a steady increase in the number of South Sudanese women pursuing postsecondary education. Similarly, some women entered the Ahfad University for Women and the High Nursing College in Khartoum. Others attained Egyptian scholarships for Sudanese students to study at Egyptian universities and colleges as well. Although women’s organizing and political activism in South Sudan was not clearly defined during the 1970s and 1980s, female students were active participants in several student-led demonstrations against government discriminatory policies toward the South, including plans to construct the Jonglei Canal meant to divert water through the Sudd wetlands of South Sudan to Egypt, as well as oil exploration in the South in the late 1970s.
Politically, women’s involvement was first manifested during the regime of President Jaafer M. Nimeiri (1969–85), within the Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU). The SSU encouraged popular participation primarily to enlighten Sudanese women politically and culturally. Thus, a handful of educated South Sudanese women made inroads into the political arena by joining the women’s wing of the SSU. Women such as Suzana Ayiba Hakim, Victoria Yar Arol, and Mary N Bassiouni held key government positions during the Nimeiri’s regime. Other women became university instructors at the University of Juba, while others joined the labor market as nurses, teachers, secretaries, and accountants, and the organized forces.
War broke out again in 1983 and lasted until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. Despite its negative impacts, studies on women and leadership in Africa have shown that armed conflicts have tended to open political spaces for women and to serve as triggers for female leadership. While internally displaced or exiled South Sudanese women remained resilient and proactive by pursuing their studies to better their knowledge and skills, they also championed the call for peace, women’s rights, and inclusivity in the political process in their country.
The period from the mid-1990s to the beginning of the 21st century represents a turning point in the history of South Sudanese women organizing and activism. For instance, many women joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) struggle in combat and non-combat roles. Like other nationalist liberation movements in Africa, the SPLM/A had a women’s wing, the Women’s Affairs Office (WAO) within the National Liberation Council (NLC), the highest political entity of the movement. The WAO was charged with the empowerment of women. The WAO was later renamed the SPLM Women’s League following the signing of the CPA.
Indeed, the disruptions of gender relations and roles caused by prolonged armed conflicts may have offered opportunities for reconfiguration of those roles and relations in the post-conflict period. Additionally, the experiences of South Sudanese women in exile brought them into contact with other cultures, people, laws, and challenges of life outside of their country. Many of them participated in meetings, workshops, short courses, and regional and international conferences pertaining to local and global issues affecting women. These experiences led to further realization of the importance of organizing, political participation, and collective action to address the challenges facing women both in exile and in the homeland.
Two important global events influenced South Sudanese women’s political consciousness and activism: the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development’s Non-Government Organizations (ICPD-NGOs) Forum, in Cairo, Egypt; and the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women’s NGOs Forum, in Beijing, China. The two NGOs forums were parallel meetings to the gathering of the United Nations member states. South Sudanese women from Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, and the United Kingdom participated in these two forums. Their participation brought to the fore, at an international stage, the effects of war on the civilian population and the challenges women faced in war-affected areas, and in refugee and IDPs camps.
The period from 1990 to 2005 saw an expansion of women’s organizing and activism nationally and internationally. Influenced by war-induced circumstances such as insecurity, displacement and human rights abuses, women formed associations to confront the challenges facing women and society. In 1994, exiled Sudanese women in Kenya formed the Nairobi-based Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace (SWVP) aimed at uniting Sudanese women of diverse backgrounds to advance women’s interests through peaceful resolution of the conflict in Sudan. Anisia Achieng Olworo and Rebecca Joshua Okwashi were among the founding members of SWVP. Similarly, women such as Margaret Juan Lado, Mary Abel, and Jago Arob were instrumental in the establishment of a branch of SWVP in Egypt.
In North America where many South Sudanese settled as refugees and immigrants, women continue to organize and mobilize for change. One prominent women’s group is the South Sudan Women’s Empowerment Network (SSWEN) founded in 2005 by a group of women in the United State led by Lilian Riziq. SSWEN advocates for women’s empowerment in South Sudan and the Diaspora through programs that encourage women’s rights, education, policy advocacy, and organizational development. It often works in partnership with other South Sudanese women’s organizations and international human rights and advocacy agencies.
The adoption of a gender-based quota system accelerated the entrance of women into the political arena. The SPLM/A has recognized the important role of women’s organizing and activism in promoting the causes of the liberation struggle prior to the signing of the CPA in 2005. As a result, the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan granted a 25 percent affirmative action for women’s representation in all levels of government. Then the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) signed in 2018 in Khartoum, Sudan, increased the percentage to 35% women’s representations. Despite its shortcomings, one of the major benefits of affirmative action for women is that it has increased the number of women who are represented in various government positions at the national and state levels. Hence, South Sudan saw a number of women in key government positions such as cabinet positions, state governors and deputy governors, Speaker of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), diplomats, Vice President, and other higher-ranking positions.
Yet, the outbreak of armed conflict in South Sudan in 2013 and the continuous communal conflicts and abuses of women’s rights and dignity, gave women an added impetus to continue the fight for women’s rights and inclusive South Sudan. These circumstances led to formation of South Sudanese Women’s Coalition for Peace (SSWCP) in September 2017, aimed at building a strong women’s movement in South Sudan. It started with forty-six women and women-led organizations based in South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda. Since then, the SSWCP membership has grown to more than sixty diverse organizations, institutions, and individual activists. Women such as Rita Lopidia, Zainab Yassin, and Dr. Pauline Riak were instrumental in the formation of the SSWCP. The participation of SSWCP in the revitalization of the peace agreement in 2018 led to unprecedented gains for women, including a provision that calls for an increase of women's political participation from 25% to 35%.
Furthermore, a group of a new generation of South Sudanese women established the South Sudanese Women Intellectuals Forum (SSWIF) in 2020. The SSWIF is a global non-profit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. As outlined in its website, the SSWIF strives to promote change and participation among South Sudanese professional women globally through online dialogue and participation. Since its inception, the SSWIF had organized many online forums which brought together South Sudanese professional women to discuss issues of concern to women and communities.
In conclusion, South Sudanese women, in the past and to some extent today, forged a unified position about gender equality that transcended their ethnic and regional affiliations. Unfortunately, the absence of political will to fully implement a gender-based quota system becomes an obstacle to achieving gender equality and sustainable development. Therefore, South Sudanese women have to hold the South Sudan Government to account for its commitments and promises around gender equality.
Jane Kani Edward is an associate clinical professor, and director of African immigration research project at the Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, New York City, U.S.A.
The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.