Southern Sudan: A bloodless bullet for women’s rights
7/03/2011 5:23:21 PM
Dina Disan Olweny and Davidica Ekay Graciano from the Association of Women and Youth Groups.
Sister Agathe Mafore staked out the polling station in the town of Torit in southern Sudan in January as an election observer. Pointing to the ballot box at the end of voting, she commented that observers saw more women than men come to have their say. “So in that way you could say that the voices of the women of Torit are now in that box.”
At the Torit-based Association of Women and Youth Groups, a huge poster behind coordinator Dina Disan spelt it out: “Women’s Vote Make a Difference” in clear white text on a bright red background.
Disan had several explanations for the high number of women taking part in the referendum on whether southern Sudan should breakaway from Sudan.
Many people suspect Sudanese society has more women than men. But a more intriguing explanation — and the reason Disan considers the more likely — is that women bore the brunt of the civil war.
Davidica Ekay Graciano, just arriving at the office, is quick to elaborate: the referendum is seen by many women as their first chance ever to have a say concerning the big issues of peace and war. It was a chance many were eager to grab. A chance to spare their children from the suffering they themselves have experienced.
“Women have suffered more. Some were raped by so many men. Many were arrested for brewing and selling alcohol in the north because, even if illegal and dangerous, that was the only way they could feed their children as the men were either away or jobless,” Graciano says.
“Women even did most of the donkey’s work in the war. They portered for the soldiers, found food and cooked for them. They had their children and often lost them during the war. And don’t forget how many women completely had to forego any chance of education.”
“The men,” Graciano adds with a smile, “only know how to shoot the gun — nothing else.”
Disan says the referendum shows the importance of women in society. People hope the vote may also help change the relationship between men and women so that women start enjoying more of their rights.
The challenges for women in southern Sudan remain daunting. “Rape, domestic violence, early and forced marriages, harmful traditions like giving your daughter away as compensation in cases of murder - these are all very real problems for many women in parts of our society,” says Graciano.
From her spacious office on the first floor of the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly, Joy Kwaje Eluzai sums up more than 20 years of campaigning for women’s rights in Sudan.
Perhaps the most important change is that women see themselves as worthy. Today, women are present in all areas of society and when they experience discrimination, many more challenge it and demand equality. “This is new and maybe the most exiting change from the early 1990s till today.”
Kwaje began as head of the women’s program of Act for Peace’s partner, the Sudan Council of Churches, in 1992. From 2005 she headed the autonomous region’s first human rights commission under the new southern government in Juba. Following the April 2010 elections, she was became chair of the Legislative Assembly’s committee on information and culture.
But even though she has now made it to the air-conditioned halls of government, Kwaje is keen to point out that realities for women in the villages are vastly different from those of many educated women in the cities.
“Women in our rural areas continue to work non-stop day-in-day-out leaving them no time and no chance to get even a basic education. For these women, simple developments like getting a borehole near their home can make a tremendous change. This will give them a little time for activities like literacy courses or small scale development activities.”
Kwaje takes half a minute to reflect even as her assistant discreetly indicates that the next appointment is overdue. “Really, to understand why women have come out in such great numbers for the referendum, you need to understand that for many of us, this was like the very last bullet in war. It was a bullet that did not cost blood but could finally win freedom for us and for our children.”
Again, the big office is quiet for a few seconds. “And like with any last bullet, you do everything to make sure that you don’t miss that shot.”