By Fredrick Nzwili
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Human rights groups say Sudan's north-south peace accord could be better on women's rights. But women who have been living in exile and marginalized by the 21-year civil war are still celebrating. They say a window of opportunity has just opened.
NAIROBI, Kenya (WOMENSENEWS)--Thousands of southern Sudanese women sang, ululated and danced to African drumbeats in a football stadium here last weekend as a power-sharing and ceasefire agreement was signed between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the southern rebel group.
The agreement--which spells out the terms by which the north and south share power and wealth--ends a 21-year conflict between an Arab-Muslim government based in the north and southern Christians and Animists. The conflict claimed an estimated 2 million lives and displaced 5 million more.
Among the celebrants in Nairobi, many were women who have been living in exile and are now allowed to return. Away from their homes, they had organized campaigns, protests and public appearances to make sure that the peace talks that began in 1994 would point toward an agreement that emphasizes civil rights and equality between men and women.
One of them is Suzanne Jambo, coordinator of the New Sudanese Indigenous NGOs-Network, an umbrella group of southern Sudan civil society organizations based in Nairobi and with offices in southern Sudan.
The war, Jambo told Women's eNews, had turned women in southern Sudan into the "marginalized of the marginalized" who faced special oppression in education, economics and politics. "But in the peace agreement we see a window of opportunity for the liberation of southern Sudan women."
The conflict contributed to high maternal mortality rates, low literacy rates, and has left southern Sudanese women with some of the lowest quality of life indicators in the world, according to the U.N.
Some international organizations, while supportive of the agreement, say it leaves room for improvement on women's rights. In a statement, Amnesty International said it was "concerned that there are inadequate provisions for the participation of civil society, including women and of independent human rights and legal experts from all parts of Sudan."
The southern accord does not apply to the fighting in Darfur, a western region where thousands of people have died in an almost 2-year-old conflict, pitting rebels against government forces and allied Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed.
Late last year, Amnesty International reported that girls as young as 8 were being raped in Darfur and used as sex slaves. It said mass rapes were war crimes and crimes against humanity, which the international community was doing little to stop.
Jambo said she hoped the new peace agreement would help bring an ending to the crisis in Darfur. "The Darfur situation is about political and economic discrimination, based on racial lines," Jambo said, and those are all the same types of issues that have been addressed by the new agreement.
While acknowledging that the new power-sharing agreement does not stipulate specific rights for women, Jambo says it does talk about fundamental human rights and equal citizenship between men and women. And for her, for now, that is enough.
"We as women are not going to sit back and the let the government do whatever its wants," she said. "With the peace coming we are also going to assume our rightful place as citizens of this country."
Women constitute 60 percent of Sudan's total population and 80 percent of its food producers, but the war had barred most girls' access to education and put them in special peril.
Although there are no abduction statistics available, Anti-Slavery International, an advocacy group in London, estimates that 14,000 of the Dinka people of southern Sudan--mainly women and children--have been abducted and that 8,000 of them were taken to west Kordofan, a region in Sudan and 6,000 to South Darfur. In early 2000, a UNICEF official estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 children were in captivity.
When the final phase of the talks began in Nairobi in 2002, some women played the role of observers. Awut Deng Acuil, a peace activist at the New Sudan Council of Churches, is one.
"We have been victims of enslavement and abduction," said. Acuil, who won the 2002 Humanitarian Award by InterAction, an association of 160 U.S.-based voluntary organizations. "We have never been at peace since independence. We were born in war, we grew up in war and we had our children in war."
The roots of the north-south conflict date to Sudan's 1959 independence from England, when southerners started a rebellion--which became an outright war in 1983--over what they saw as discrimination of their Christianized region by an Islamized-Arab administration in the north.
Now Acuil, who has lived in exile for the duration of the war, contemplates going home and starting a new life. "I work for peace and I am a great advocate for human rights," she said. "I am seeing myself thinking whether I should be a farmer or a teacher or anything that I can do to give service to my people."
Teresa Modesto, a member of the Sudanese Women General Union, an umbrella group for women based in Khartoum, expects that now the war is over, women will benefit from new resources.
Before the truce, human rights groups charged the government with using oil proceeds to fund the war. Under the new power-sharing agreement, the country's oil resources are supposed to be equally divided between the government and the rebels. Ali Osman Taha, a high ranking Sudanese official who led the government's negotiation team, has pledged that the funds used to pay for the war will go toward public health and education.
"We are hoping to see a lot of development now that the war that kept sucking our natural and human resources has ended," Modesto said.
Now the power-sharing agreement has been signed, the Sudanese constitution will be amended to allow the formation of a government of national unity between the current one and the rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
Grace Dotira, a member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, hopes that the new government will recognize women's role in supplying food and nursing to the rebel cause. "They have been at the battle front, beside their husband at the war. They have kept their families together in the war. We want the world to recognize the women's contribution to the war," she said.
Dotira and others are also looking for the new government to take the next steps on women's behalf, to ensure that women get better representation in government and that girls get better access to education, health care and social services.
Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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