Sudan: More women needed at peace talks and in government

It is women who have borne the responsibility of promoting reconciliation and healing at the local level. It is women who receive refugees and ex-combatants during war. Women should be at the negotiating table in Abuja.
NAIROBI, Sep 10 (IPS) - A meeting in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi has highlighted the importance of giving Sudanese women a greater voice in their country's political affairs, if Sudan is to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
While a peace agreement was signed in January bringing an end to more than two decades of civil war in southern Sudan, the western region of Darfur continues to be plagued by conflict between government and rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). African Union-sponsored peace talks for Darfur are scheduled to resume Sep. 15. in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

"It is difficult to make progress on the MDGs unless substantive efforts to end conflict in Darfur are made. However, it is important that women should also be seated in Abuja negotiating for peace in Darfur alongside other parties," said Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, regional programme director in East Africa for the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

"It is women who have borne the responsibility of promoting reconciliation and healing at the local level. It is women who receive refugees and ex-combatants during war. Women should be at the negotiating table in Abuja, as this is in line with the U.N. Security Council resolution 1325," she noted at the Nairobi meeting, which took place Friday. The gathering focused on implementation of the MDGs in Sudan.

Resolution 1325, passed Oct. 31 2000, marks the council's first attempt to address the specific affects of war on women -- and the role they play in ending conflict.

Fighting in Darfur began in early 2003, when the SLA and JEM launched attacks to protest against government's alleged neglect of the area. Officials responded by targeting the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups, from which the rebels were seen to draw support.

Khartoum is also accused of backing Arab militants known as the "janjaweed" ("men on horseback") in raids against members of these ethnic groups. About 300,000 people have reportedly been killed in the Darfur conflict, and over two million displaced. Last year, the U.S. administration said events in the region constituted genocide.

Fighting in southern Sudan resulted in even greater displacement. About four million people are said to have been forced from their homes, while over two million others lost their lives during the conflict between government and rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

The region has also been blighted by the war in other ways: it lacks tarred roads, running water, schools and hospitals.

"Southern Sudan, and especially the women who are most affected, are in urgent need of financial help to rebuild even the very basic facilities," said Gumbonzvanda. "We hope that the multi-donor trust funds meant for the reconstruction of southern Sudan will have an open door policy where women can walk in and access resources."

At a meeting held in April in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, donors pledged to raise 7.8 billion dollars to fund reconstruction in Sudan, with a substantial amount of this money being destined for the south.

"Education is first priority. Up to now our children are studying under trees -- but how can you get education if there are no schools?" asked Mary Abiong, chairperson of the National Women's Association of Southern Sudan -- which falls under the SPLM/A's Commission for Women, Gender and Child Welfare for Southern Sudan.

"We need schools both for our children and adults. A great number of adults, mostly women, are illiterate," she added.

According to a 2004 report by the New Sudan Centre for Statistics and Evaluation and the United Nations Children's Fund, adult illiteracy rates in southern Sudan in 2001 stood at 88 percent for women, and 63 percent for men. The study was entitled 'Towards a Baseline: Best Estimates of Social Indicators for Southern Sudan'.

The New Sudan Centre for Statistics and Evaluation also forms part of the SPLM/A, which fought for religious and political self-determination in the south.

Keziah Layinwa Nicodemus, head of the SPLM/A's women and gender commission, welcomed quotas on political representation for women -- but warned that this could not be taken for granted.

"We have been given 25 percent southern Sudan's constitution. But we have to push to make this a reality. Sudan is a country of men and we have to work hard with the support of the international community to train our women to be leaders," she said.

"We need more women in order to have a strong base to come up with laws that address issue like violence against women, which affected us during the 21-year-old war, and is still affecting women in the ongoing war in Darfur."

According to a report issued earlier this year by rights watchdog Amnesty International, rape has been used as a weapon of war in Darfur.

"Armed forces and militia members raped thousands of women and tens of thousands of women suffered other violence and forced displacement in the conflict in Darfur," noted the document, which assessed the state of human rights globally.

"Women were raped during attacks and frequently abducted into sexual slavery for days or months. Women continued to be raped outside IDP (internally displaced persons) camps," it added.

The Nairobi meeting comes ahead of an important U.N. gathering, to be held Sep. 14 to 16 in New York.

The United Nations World Summit will debate reform of the global body, and progress towards the MDGs -- agreed on by international leaders at the Millennium Summit in 2000.

The eight goals deal with halving extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality -- and cutting down on child and maternal mortality. In addition, they seek to combat disease, promote environmental sustainability, and develop partnerships for tackling matters such as unfair trading practices.

The deadline for the MDGs is 2015. (END/2005)

by Joyce Mulama, IPS