On Saturday, a new nation was born: the Republic of South Sudan.
Formerly a semi-autonomous region within the Republic of Sudan, the new state is the result of a referendum on independence in which roughly 99% of the predominantly African, Christian or animist Southerners elected to split from the largely Muslim, Arab North.
For more than two decades, the two had been engaged in Africa’s longest civil war, a conflict in which staggering numbers of innocent civilians paid the price: 4 million displaced, 2 million killed and 2 million women raped.
A Violent Peace
Although a 2005 peace accord officially ended the war and guaranteed the South the right to peaceably choose whether or not to form its own state, violence continues in disputed territories of Southern Kordofan and Abyei.
Since the referendum results were announced last January, an unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout disputed territories along the border between North and South. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei, a disputed border region, and at least another 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Northern Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. These thousands are fleeing violence and civilian targeting at the hands of the Northern government, whose President, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted for war crimes by the ICC.
Additional reports indicate that aerial bombings have killed civilians, as Northern forces use outdated, Russian-made Antonov cargo aircraft and roll bombs out of the back. Accuracy is almost impossible, and civilian deaths are common, if unintended.
Challenges for Women
Development indicators paint no prettier picture, particularly for women. The 2010 State Department Human Rights Report on Sudan points to violence and discrimination against women as a growing problem in the South. The new nation is home to the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, roughly 80% female illiteracy, and widespread child marriage and female genital cutting.
Girls are forced into marriage as young as 14, not only compromising prospects for education, but also contributing to the country’s dismal maternal health statistics. Only 27 percent of girls are in primary school, and a recent UN report show girls more likely to die than attend receive an education.
The Way Forward
Despite the acute social and economic challenges faced by South Sudan’s women and girls, there is a strong movement by women to play an active role in building a better future for their new nation.
52% of the voters during the referendum were women, and many women returned to the South after years of displacement to take part in the historic vote. 60% of the families that returned to South Sudan to vote in the referendum were reportedly led by a single woman.
Despite relative exclusion from formal processes like peace talks and donor conferences, women have campaigned tirelessly for their voices to be heard in national debates. In 2008, women’s civil society groups were not permitted by the World Bank to participate in the 2008 Oslow donor conference, so they organized a parallel conference and lobbied the donors next door to address their priorities. Women’s civil society groups organized around the peace talks and campaigned for a leadership role in the new government.
The Constitution now states that 25% of the seats in the legislature and executive posts must be held by women. The South has already exceeded that benchmark: as of 2010, 34% of Parliamentary seats are held by women. Given that research shows that governments with higher percentages of women in power correlate with decreased corruption and increased attention to humanitarian and development needs, this is right on time for a new country emerging from war and needing to build services, infrastructure and a peaceful future.
The Constitution also provides for equal pay, benefits such as maternity leave, equal participation in public life, equal property and inheritance rights and the development of laws to combat traditional practices that are harmful to women. These provisions, while necessary and promising, are yet a far cry from today’s reality for most women. As we celebrate the emergence of a new nation on the world stage, we must do so with the sober knowledge that there is much work left to be done, and commit ourselves to opening opportunities for all people—including women—to live in dignity, able to pursue their dreams and build a peaceful, prosperous future for themselves and their fledgling country.