South Sudan: Can Women in South Sudan Make National Decisions?

opinion

In celebration of International women's Day, March 8th, senior officials of Government of South Sudan and members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), expressed their views on national media outlets about women's role in politics and public affairs of South Sudan.

Countless women leaders and activists called for more women participation in decision-making processes. The President of the Republic of South Sudan (RSS) also acknowledged the importance of giving women a chance to participate in the public affairs of the new country. In a recent statement posted on (SPLM-Diaspora@yahoogroups.com), the President noted that "in Republic of South Sudan, we have taken a stand and publicly declared that women should participate, at least 35% in all levels of the government."

I applaud the commitment of the SPLM for allocating twenty five percent of seats to women in all levels of governments; and its recent proposal to increase the quotas allocated for women from 25% to 35%. Although the existing 25% of seats has yet to be fully implemented, it has led to increase in the number of women in parliament and other key positions in the national and state level governments. As I argued in my previous commentary, "Women and political participation in South Sudan," September 2011, sudantribune.com, the interim period from 2005 to mid.2011, witnessed an increase in the number of women who held decision-making positions in the former Government of Southern Sudan.

Since the country gained its independence in mid-2011 the number of women in the National Legislative Assembly, the Council of States, and the cabinet has increased. Despite such progress, however, women's involvement in politics in South Sudan has not been followed by tangible implementation of measures that ensure their effectual participation in the decision making process. Similarly, although there are women in senior positions in the government, the living conditions of ordinary South Sudanese women remain unchanged.

Thus, the purpose of writing this article is neither to discount the role of the SPLM in promoting women's political participation nor to oppose the recent proposed increase in the percentage allocated for women. Rather, I intend to shade light on one important aspect related to women's participation in the political process in the context of affirmative action for women participation in the decision-making process on key issues of national character. Given the relatively high percentage of women's representation in parliament and cabinet today, I pose the following questions. To what extent are women involved in key decisions pertaining to national issues such as foreign policy, national security, and education, and the economy? Are women's viewpoints seriously considered when decisions on these issues are undertaken?

The underlying premise is that the presence of women in corridors of power might result in positive change in the lives of many ordinary women in a given society. This is due partly to the conception that more women in the Legislative Assembly and the executive fulfill the principle of justice between the sexes. Also electing and/or appointing more women in government might lead to focus on particular interests or issues of concern to women that would otherwise be overlooked if women are not elected or appointed.

However, following the recent developments in South Sudan, this, to a certain extent, is not the case. Published reports emanating from the country since its independence, paint a very depressing picture of the conditions and the experiences of many women in the country. For example, recent reports published by local and international human rights organizations and other news outlets revealed the prevalent of gender-based abuses, such as wife beating, sexual harassment, early and forced marriages, rape, etc. Furthermore, inter-ethnic conflicts, and increased insecurity in many parts of the country are negatively affecting the lives of many women, children and the elderly.

These depressing realities make one raises the following questions: Why women continue to suffer despite increasing numbers of women in senior government positions such as ministers, deputy ministers, presidential advisor on Human Rights, and so on. Similarly, if women leaders are expected to focus attention on women's issues, how their presences in national and state assemblies, as well as in the cabinet should influence institutional culture and legislations that advance the status and the position of women? How can women in senior positions challenge discriminatory policies and/or party leadership to ensure that women's viewpoints and decisions are vital and respected?

Of course there are no simple answers to these questions. However, what I can say is that South Sudanese women in political leadership face numerous challenges, partly due to the fact that, they do not enjoy similar privileges as their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to decision-making on important issues affecting the country and its people. This disadvantage exists mainly because the political and institutional cultures within which women operate remain very much patriarchal in orientation. Women in South Sudan are largely seen as unfit to lead or make serious decisions regarding the above mentioned national issues. The practice of politics in the consciousness of many people in South Sudan remains the domain of men.

Based on my personal experience, and recent conversations with two prominent South Sudanese women officials in the national government; it became clear that women are often excluded and/or marginalized in major decisions pertaining to the economy, peace negotiations, foreign policy, national security, etc. One of the factors identified as an obstacle to effective women's participation in major decision-making processes is the working environment in which women operate. For example, the scheduling of official meetings where important decisions are determined is not often compatible with women's schedules and/or availability. According to one of the officials, most of such meetings take place at night and in spaces deemed "inappropriate" for women to be present. Given the patriarchal tendencies and socio-cultural understanding of women's place in a society such as South Sudan, many women find it difficult to attend these meetings, out of concern that they might be characterized by others as 'disrespectful' or 'transgressing' women. Thus, due to their absence in these meetings they are excluded from key decisions, some of which might have serious consequences on women's lives.

Moreover, although women participated in the liberation struggle, some as combatants, they are excluded from the nation's Security Council, which is dominated by men who in turn make all key decisions. Instead, women in the army are relegated to the gender department, which is viewed as compatible to their stereotypical roles of caring and nurturing. Furthermore, as one female MP puts it, women are not involved in decision making in the National Assembly. In addition the existence of two branches of the National Assembly - South Sudan Legislative Assembly (SSLA) and the Council of States, represent another hindrance to women's effective participation in the decision-making process. However, female MPs are trying to make their voices heard by forming women's caucuses to address specific issues of concern to women. For instance, a "Child Lobby Group" in the SSLA was formed to address issues of early and forced marriages. Similar initiatives are also replicated in some state assemblies. Another reason cited is lack of cooperation among women - women are not working together as a block to engage the male-dominated leadership and legislative assembly. Nonetheless, despite the challenges faced, both officials agreed that women have to fight to be part of the decision-making process to effect change. Indeed, women will be able to assert their views in the decision making process through education and economic empowerment.

In conclusion, despite the relative increase in the number of women in senior positions in the government, nonetheless, women are not yet fully incorporated as equal partners into the male-dominated political structure of South Sudan. Although the allocation of twenty five percent of seats to women ensures women's political participation, it does not avail women with the same power to make decisions on issues of national importance as their male counterparts.

Women are often relegated to political positions and institutions that reflect their stereotypical domestic roles of caring and nurturing. In my opinion, therefore, the percentage of women's representation only created the impression that gender inequality or women's issues of concern and interests have been dealt with aptly. Likewise, when women's political survival and/or decisions they make depend upon the approval of the political party that granted them the affirmative action, women's efforts to challenge the party's leadership or discriminatory policies against women are significantly curtailed.

This situation makes it difficult for female MPs and/or those in the cabinet who came through the SPLM party ticket to push for the implementation of policies that improve women's lives, or policies that are contrary to the principles of the party leadership. One of the biggest problems facing women legislators is policy implementation. Many policies that were approved by the SSLA remain unimplemented. It is true that legislating policy is a necessary step, but it is not sufficient condition for ensuring the adequate implementation of the policies to advance the status of women. Therefore, it is my conviction that women in South Sudan need to look beyond the twenty five percent or the proposed thirty five percent, and chart their own independent political paths that will free them from the bondage of party patronage. If they do so, then, they will be able to make decisions, influence policies and effect change in the lives of the majority of South Sudanese women.

Dr. Jane Kani Edward is Clinical Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Director of African Immigration Research, Fordham University. She is the Author of Sudanese Women Refugees: Transformations and Future Imaginings, 2007. She can be reached at kanilado@yahoo.ca

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