Women as peacemakers in Sudan – challenges and opportunities

South Kordofan Rebel Group

With Sudan and South Sudan on the verge of all-out war, many local peacebuilding organizations are utilising the potential of women to act as peacemakers between communities in an attempt to thwart further violence.

By Louise Hogan

Less than a year after declaring independence, South Sudan is engaged in low-level violence with its northern neighbour, the Republic of Sudan. Aerial bombings and military raids by both sides are a daily occurrence. South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) completely shut down oil production, in an attempt to deny Khartoum revenue, which has deprived the emerging nation of 71% of its GDP and prevented it from developing its basic infrastructure. Once again, all out war in Sudan seems depressingly inevitable.

In South Kordofan, a mineral rich border province which remains under Khartoum’s control but whose inhabitants’ identity politically and culturally with South Sudan, violent conflict is a daily occurrence. With a population of approximately two million people and vast oil and mineral reserves, South Kordofan is a valuable asset. For this reason, Khartoum refused to relinquish it during the peace negotiations which led to the signing in 2005 of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the eventual independence of South Sudan, despite its inhabitants waging a two decade guerrilla insurgency for independence.

Years of conflict and insecurity have, unsurprisingly, taken a heavy toll on a community whose culture and identity is rooted in tradition and the local environment. With an estimated fifty different ethnic groups resident in South Kordofan, ethnic tensions were also exacerbated by the wider conflict, and often erupted into violence. Ethnic groups who had respected each other’s customs when living side-by-side, found themselves thrust upon each other in haphazard, over-crowded refugee camps, and cultural tensions often graduated into violent outbreaks.

Women as peacemakers

This situation led a group of Sudanese women from South Kordofan to form an organisation called Ru’ya (Arabic for ‘Vision’). Recognising the important role women could play as peacemakers both within and between communities, Ru’ya initiated a simple project they christened Women Solidarity Groups. Based on the premise that a lack of cultural understanding and an archaic patriarchal system which placed undue precedence on pride were causing much of the conflict, the basic idea was simple but effective. By regularly meeting to share coffee, food and experiences, women from various backgrounds could learn about each other’s traditions, beliefs and practices and form bonds across cultural divides. These groups organically graduated into something more than simple support groups – some started their own micro-financing programmes; others served as peacemakers between previously warring communities. When a ceasefire was called and communities began to return home, the project spread from the refugee camps to newly-resettled villages and communities. Having established a method of gaining influence in a notoriously male-dominated society, women were reluctant to give it up.

A local micro-financing scheme established by one Solidarity Group

From peacebuilding to development

In the villages, the focus of these groups often moved from peacebuilding to development. In one particularly successful example, women in a Solidarity Group in Mirri Barra, a rocky outpost west of Kadugli, pursued their male family members to allow four illiterate women from their group to travel to India to study solar technology at the Barefoot College. After months of relentless lobbying from local women, with support from Ru’ya staff, the village elders eventually gave permission for the women to travel for the six month training. The women returned equipped with the skills and knowledge to install solar electricity in an astonishing ninety nine homes in the village.

Women from Mirri Barra, South Kordofan studying solar technology at the Barefoot College

Politics, peace and the consequences of ignoring gender concerns

Ru’ya is by no means the only Sudanese organisation harnessing the potential of women to act as peacemakers; other organisations such as New Sudan Women’s Federation and the Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace have attempted to engage women in the peacemaking process in Sudan. However, the marginalisation of women and gender concerns from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement Negotiations in 2005 has made it difficult for women to participate politically in their communities. Dr. Anne Itto, a member of the SPLM’s delegation to the Naivasha talks has commented, “Despite the active role women played at various levels to bring peace to Sudan their role has tended to be underestimated or ignored during negotiations. This may have originated from the misconception that women are passive victims of war, forgetting the important role they played in negotiating, keeping and building peace in their communities.” With conflict once more raging in various states in both Sudan and South Sudan, and all out-war between the two countries appearing difficult to avert, Sudanese women are once more finding their lives and communities torn apart by violence.

The marginalisation of women from public life, political participation and the process of building democratic institutions in Sudan and South Sudan have undoubtedly contributed to the ongoing cycle of conflict and violence. Sudan is ruled by an authoritarian, hard-line Islamist party. Violence against women is endemic and institutionalised, and women are largely excluded from public life.  In South Sudan, although there are five female ministers and nine female deputy ministers in the interim government, the situation of women in the country in general is dire. Education levels for girls are among the world’s lowest, early and/or forced marriage is common, there are high levels of female genital mutilation and customary law is still most prevalent source of justice. This system classifies women, at best, as second class citizens and, at worst, as possessions of their husband or male relatives. The male-dominated leadership of the SPLM in South Sudan has concentrated its political efforts on engaging in warmongering with its northern neighbour, instead of dealing with its most pressing concerns – establishing the rule of law across the country, improving basic infrastructure and affording basic human rights to its citizens, including women.

When the most recent bout of violence broke out in South Kordofan last summer, the staff of Ru’ya was forced to leave Kadugli town and flee to Uganda. Ru’ya is currently concentrating its efforts on political advocacy, on behalf of the women of South Kordofan, in Uganda and Kenya, while also working to establish programmes in South Sudan which aid refugees from South Kordofan. Although projects such as those initiated by Ru’ya have practically impacted the lives of women and enhanced their political standing within their communities, for women to become genuinely, regionally and nationally politically active, this male-perpetuated cycle of violence must come to an end; women must be involved in the ensuing peace negotiations and gender concerns should be a top political priority. Unfortunately, as war looms ever closer, we fear there may be more years of violence before women get their chance to politically participate, both in North and South Sudan.

Louise Hogan is associate project coordinator with Justice Africa. Formerly an executive assistant with Ru’ya Association, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, she continues to assist Ru’ya with their peacebuilding efforts.

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