South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, but it has suffered from a civil war since 2013, said Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an independent, non-partisan think tank. The civil war resulted in mass displacement, food insecurity, high levels of violence, and human rights violations that may be considered as war crimes. Sadly, the majority of displaced people consist of women and girls.
President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former Vice President Rik Machar signed a peace agreement after seven failed cease-fires while under the threat of international sanctions in 2015. After the government collapsed in 2016, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development—a trade bloc consisting of eight African countries—supported renewed talks. South Sudan’s Revitalized Agreement of Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (RARCSS) was signed in September 2018, wrote Anna Tonelli and colleagues of charitable organization OXFAM in the report “Born to Lead.”
Those who signed on behalf of parties to the conflict were men, but seven of the 17 civil society signatories were women. While it’s an achievement, there are still barriers that hinder South Sudanese women from being equally represented in building and sustaining peace in both formal and informal peace processes.
General Statistics On Women, Peace, and Security
Women all over the world are largely marginalized and underrepresented in formal peace processes. In fact, women comprised 13% of negotiators, 3% of mediators, and only 4% of signatories in major peace processes, according to the CFR and UN Women, the UN’s entity for gender equality and women empowerment. Out of six active UN-led or co-led processes, women were part of 14 out of 19 delegations in 2018.
Interestingly, gender-sensitive language in peace agreements is key to setting a foundation for gender-inclusion during the peacebuilding process. However, the majority of agreements do not explicitly address gender equality or women’s rights. Between 1990 and the end of 2018, only 353 of 1,789 or 19.7% of agreements were related to over 150 peace processes that included provisions addressing women, girls, or gender. In 2018, only four out of 150 or 7.7% of peace agreements contained gender-related provisions, down from 2015’s 39%.
Women served as Head of State or Government in 19 countries, including in two post-conflict countries as of January 2019: Serbia and Ethiopia. 20.7% is the global average of women minister. In conflict and post-conflict countries, the figure is 18.3%.
Facts on Gender Issues In South Sudan
Early marriage is common in the country with 45% of girls married when they turned 18 and 7% of girls married when they were younger than 15-years-old, reported CARE, a global humanitarian organization. Domestic abuse is widely accepted by women (82%) and men (81%), with both parties agreeing to the statement “women should tolerate violence in order to keep her family together.”
During the 2015 peace agreement, South Sudanese women comprised 15% of delegates in negotiations. The figure rose to 25% during the 2018 negations. The figure is still insufficient even if it indicated a higher level of women’s representation than in many peace processes around the world. In the renewed 2018 peace effort, one woman (1%) served as a mediator, while 25% of women were official delegates.
How Women Changed South Sudan for the Better
1. Working Across Lines
Women eased tensions between South Sudan’s two main tribal groups, namely the Dinka and Nuer. They overcame tribal differences to reduce conflict between their communities while the women were living in UN displacement sites. After the 2015 peace agreement was adopted, over 500 women joined across religious, ethnic, and regional divides to work on their vision for the “South Sudan We Want.”
They identified priorities and formed the Women’s Peace think tank to track the implementation of the agreement. The women argued that all arguments should be translated into local languages, collaborated to educate the public on the contents, and trained them on conflict resolution.
In 2018, South Sudanese women established the Women’s Coalition, comprising of members that serve as official observers to the renewed peace effort as well as disseminating updates on the talks to conflict-affected communities
2. Broadening the Scope
Thanks to the influence of South Sudanese women leaders, the 2017 ceasefire agreement prohibited sexual violence in conflict to protect civilians and reunite women and children. They also demanded accountability for atrocities, including widespread sexual violence done by armed groups, peacekeepers, and security forces.
3. Demanding Peace
Hundreds of women marched in silence in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, to end the conflict and to condemn the continued rape and killing of civilians, the lack of humanitarian services for people in need, and displacement.
Women’s groups and international observers also stressed the need for women to participate meaningfully in all peace and security processes to ensure that South Sudan moves towards stability and protect civilians from violence.
But It’s Still Not Enough
Esther Soma, author of the report, argued, “Throughout South Sudan’s history of national peace processes, women have persisted on making their voices heard, even though traditional gender norms often restricted them from doing so,” as quoted in a press release by OXFAM. Deeply entrenched beliefs about gender norms in South Sudan are still prevalent, limiting women’s participation in decision-making and leadership.
This means they do not have equal opportunities to be part of leadership roles. Women who take on leadership roles are criticized or are not taken seriously. Such gender roles start at a young age, with boys being more prioritized than girls.
Moreover, no state governor in the country is a woman. The revitalized peace agreement mandated a 35% quota for women’s participation in the transitional government, which is set to be formed on February 22. Women agreed with the quota. However, they are still expected to speak collectively, which compromise the nuance of having contrasting perspective in discussions. On the other hand, men are given the option to have different stances and perspectives.
Women even feared intimidation, arrest, and harassment by the authorities on their return from negotiations in Addis Ababa and Khartoum to Juba during the RARCSS process. These threats mean that some women still live in exile.
“Women and girls have borne the brunt of the conflict, and we are tired. We have said it again and again: now it is time for lasting peace in South Sudan,” asserted Riya Yuyada, executive director of South Sudanese women’s organization Crown the Woman and chair of Born to Lead, a consortium of women’s rights activists.
Women and girls in South Sudan bear the consequences of civil war such as harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. South Sudanese women are stepping up, mandating a 35% quota for women’s participation and deescalating conflict. Their achievements are commendable, but they still need to face antiquated gender norms and societal expectations. Hopefully, the transitional government will further amplify women’s voices at the political and community level.