Women, Security, and the Sudan Referendum

This week, voters are flooding the polls in Sudan to vote on a referendum to allow the South to secede and form its own, independent country.  Despite concerns of violence and unrest, the vote has been largely peaceful and is expected to yield a victory for the independence movement.  However, despite the success so far, not enough has been to done to involve women in the peace-building process.  If action is not taken soon, southern Sudan’s hopes at a stable and peaceful birth will fall far short of its potential.

This past October, the world celebrated the ten year anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, acknowledging the role women have to play in global peace and security.  The resolution encourages greater participation in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace-building, and post-conflict governance.

Because women are affected in unique ways by conflict, gender-sensitive issues need to be at the center of peace and security operations.  So far, women’s participation has been minimal. Women were largely excluded from negotiations that forged the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), the cease-fire agreement of 2005 that paved the way for this week’s referendum on secession.  The Darfur Peace Accord (DPA), intended to bring peace specifically to the Darfur region which has seen extraordinary violence and death in recent years, does only slightly better than the CPA.  The DPA excluded women in the first six rounds of negotiations, but in the seventh round, extensive efforts by both local activists and the international community prompted the African Union to allow women to form a Gender Expert Support Team (GEST) to advocate for gender specific issues.  The DPA at least attempts to address gender sensitivity by calling for increased female participation in government and improved capabilities to address gender-based violence.  However, without quotas, money, or tools for implementation, such efforts remain ineffective.

What Needs to be Done

Women need to be granted a greater role in not just the peace-building process, but also in the new governance and power-sharing structures.  Should the South choose to secede, as is largely expected, organizations such as the International Crisis Group have suggested a number of steps that can be taken to ensure greater participation by women:

1) A smooth reintegration of refugees.  Refugees, most of whom are women with children, cannot participate in the peace and rebuilding process until they are safely home. The war in Sudan has displaced almost 4 million people, and it is imperative that the crisis be addressed without additional violence or chaos. If women are traveling with children, and are combating poverty, drought, hunger, disease, imprisonment, degradation, and violence, it is simply impossible for them act as agents of the peace and stability that the region desperately needs.

2) Access to justice for victims of sexual violence. Sexual violence in times of war is staggering as women are targeted not just as vulnerable civilians, but also as a strategy of war. Without justice for the victims, along with medical care and treatment, the cycle of violence will never end and these women will not be able to lead full and productive lives. Additionally, a judicial system that allows sexual predators amnesty cannot adequately and justly serve its population.

3) Access to reproductive health care. Particularly in a war that has such high rates of ethnic tension, where forced impregnation is used as a weapon of war, such access is imperative in order to give women control over their bodies and health.

4) Education and training about HIV/AIDS. Such training will not only save lives, but also improve relations as it seeks to end the stigmatization surrounding victims of the disease. After a woman is raped, often her family will not accept her back because of fear of the virus. She is then additionally unable to care for her children and the refugee crisis will become even more pronounced.

5)  Opportunity to participate in governing.  For example, women need to be involved in the National Transition Team, which prepares and allocates budges for post-conflict reconstruction, in order to ensure that gender-specific needs are addressed.

Victory is largely expected for the independence movement, and Southern secession may prove to be a valuable mechanism for women’s engagement.  While Northern Sudan has a longer and more established history of women’s activism, the enabling culture of the South, along with its government’s official commitment to advancing women’s rights, has garnered more international support and funding for these activities. The Government of Southern Sudan, for instance, has already set up a Ministry of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare specifically to address gender-related policies. Secession from the North may provide more freedom to pursue gender-sensitive policies, such as the passage of CEDAW (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). CEDAW cannot be ratified currently as it is a national issue, and in the North, many view the terms of CEDAW as being contrary to Sharia law.

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve what the International Crisis Center calls a “gender-sensitive framework for sustainable peace.”  The Sudanese people have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now, and we can only hope that they will do what is necessary to encourage a peaceful and stable transition by promoting women’s participation at all levels.

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  • I have been paying attention to the status of women globally for many years, (mainly because I’ve been reading The New York Times for about thirty years and they cover this, although I suspect that now, with severe cutbacks, this will change). I have trouble imagining how women will get the reforms “suggested” by the International Crisis Group, because the “suggestions” of the powerless are toothless, especially when they’re up against entrenched systems of domination and oppression.

    Recently Ayaan Hirsi Ali published a piece in The New York Times, in which she criticized Western feminist “solipsism” and exhorted us to remember our “subjugation” and turn our attention to the lives of women in countries where they have no human rights. She contrasted Elizabeth Gilbert’s book with Nujood Ali’s book “I am Nujood, 10 and Divorced.” Frankly, I haven’t read either of Gilbert’s books and was surprised to find her identified as feminist.

    I wrote to Hirsi Ali (you can find her email at The American Enterprise Institute) to say it’s not “solipsism” and that it’s more complex than that, but particularly to ask her WHAT WE SHOULD DO. What can we do, I asked her? I didn’t get a reply. I send money to many organizations that work in the countries I speak of. Assuming Western feminists can put pressure on foreign sovereign countries to change attitudes/policy toward women, how can we be effective? I must also admit I think rousing Western feminists to this cause is a very remote possibility and has more resonance with human rights groups. Why is this? Part of the answer is that privileged feminists are busy running their businesses and non-profits and less privileged feminists are struggling to make ends meet and raise their families, not to mention re-fighting the abortion battles.