Sudan: Women Lead in Sudan's Clamour for Good Governance

Women in El Fasher, North Darfur, march for “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence”, an annual campaign beginning on the International Day to End Violence Against Women.

The protests in Sudan from 2018 to 2019 represented a return, rather than a sudden rise, of women's leadership, organization and mobilization.

Women were visible leaders on the frontlines of the protests, through music, poetry and speeches.

They organized and coordinated times and locations. They provided food, shelter and necessary resources for other protesters. They were also victims of physical brutality, tear gas and death.

News outlets estimated that upwards of 70 per cent of protesters were women.

The most recognizable example was of Alaa Salah, dressed in a white gown and large, golden earrings, whose video clip of her standing on top of a car leading a chant with a densely packed crowd of protesters went viral and was used in several international media outlets.

Since the famous photo of her on the car was taken and shared across social media, Ms. Salah has spoken to the United Nations Security Council, given many other interviews and paused her intent to continue schooling in favor of advocating for a better Sudan.

The transitional constitution guarantees 40 per cent representation to women in the 300-seat parliamentary body the Transitional Legislative Council, which is 120 seats, an increase from the previous representation quota of 25 per cent in the former regime.

However, despite some successes, Ms. Salah, among others, has made it clear that political change must include equal representation. As Ms. Salah stated at the United Nations, "There is no excuse for [women] not to have an equal seat at every single table."

Historical context

The Sudanese Women's Union (SWU), formed in 1952, represents a strong example of women fighting for political change. The SWU strove to create positive changes in women's lives by reducing female illiteracy, ending pay and job discrimination and gaining the women's right to vote. Universal suffrage and the right to maternity leave were some of the group's greatest accomplishments.

However, dictators later curbed the momentum by limiting and co-opting women's representation through political quotas, outlawing women's non-governmental organizations and jailing the opposition. This all occurred despite the president of the SWU, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, becoming the first woman voted into parliament in Sudan in the 1960s.

What has changed

Following several months on the streets, Sudanese protestors achieved one of their biggest goals in August 2019 - the agreement for the creation of a transitional, civilian-majority government.

The transitional constitution guarantees 40 per cent representation to women in the 300-seat parliamentary body the Transitional Legislative Council, which is 120 seats, an increase from the previous representation quota of 25 per cent in the former regime.

Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, sworn in last August, appointed four women to cabinet: Foreign Minister Asma Mohamed Abdalla, Minister of Labor and Social Development Lena el-Sheikh Mahjoub, Minister of Youth and Sports Wala'a Essam al-Boushi and Minister of Higher Education Intisar el-Zein Seghayroun.

There have also been changes in legislation that affect the lives of women across Sudan. The government has repealed a repressive public order law policing how women act and what they wear and was one of the countless tools meant to discriminate and repress women.

The death penalty for apostasy was repealed. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been outlawed and the execution of children has been banned. Women no longer need the consent of their husband or male guardian to travel with their children.

However, Mariam Yahya, a victim of Sudan's apostasy laws and discrimination towards women, points out that "there is still a long way to go."

Progress amid challenges

Despite some progress in Sudan towards achieving human rights and democratic values, challenges remain.

The economy, which had already been struggling under former president Omar al-Bashir, has not recovered under the new administration, and the restrictions and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have only made conditions worse.

Protesters have returned to the streets to voice their displeasure over the current conditions and the pace of economic reform, while remnants of the old regime are also pushing back against the reforms.

For Sudan's women, the march for equal representation continues, to both fill the 120 seats in the transitional council and to prepare for the 2022 elections.

A UN-funded mapping exercise earlier this year to promote political participation and identify and later train potential candidates found over 1,000 women willing to represent their communities, despite barriers ranging from patriarchal systems and lack of training, to travel expenses and childcare needs.

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