Sunday, 27 November 2011

The women of South Sudan have spoken

Historically, the voices of women in South Sudan have not been heard. Over the two decades of religious and ethnic driven civil war at least 1.5 million people were killed, and millions more Sudanese were displaced, particularly in border areas like Abyei and South Kordofan. The land was ravaged, human rights were forgotten, and terror resounded around the countryside. Systematic exclusion during this long and bloody war resulted in South Sudan being one of the poorest countries in the world and having some of the worst health indicators in the world, particularly for women. South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1,700 deaths per 100,000 live births), there are only 100 trained midwives in the population of 8 million, and severe illiteracy exists among women, with three times as many boys enrolled in schools as girls and a rate of 92% illiteracy in women in South Sudan (Joyce Chimbi, IPS).

Finally, with the arrival of the 2011 elections the women of South Sudan had the opportunity to speak up. Opinions were voiced, all were given a say, and the new nation of the Republic of South Sudan was born on the 9th July, 2011. 99% of voters from the population of over eight million supported independence. Even more extraordinary than this overwhelming majority vote, was that over half of the voters registered were women. This incredible phenomenon should be recognised and celebrated because it is a remarkable example of women fighting to have their say and to change their status in a society that traditionally eliminates them from politics.
Finding the courage to voice their opinions, many for the first time, is a major achievement for the women of South Sudan who have been historically underrepresented, powerless, and unequal, both in the family and particularly in society.

While they did not all fight in the war, women feel that they were most seriously affected by its outcomes: women learnt to be both mothers and fathers and to deal with the grief of losing their fathers, husbands, and sons. This loss is not in vain because they got the result that they fought so hard for: independence.

Independence is a day we have been waiting for many years - for as long as I can remember.
Even if I am poor I am rich, because I will have a country….
When I threw my vote into the ballot box for the referendum for independence in January, I said: "This is my time."
I raised the flag with my vote - we all did, all the 99% who chose independence.
People were laughing, singing, dancing all night long.
That was when we knew that our freedom is coming….
It has been a long journey to this point.
Sarah Nyakouth William, after voting for independence, BBC

We can only hope that the separation of Sudan and South Sudan will end this bloody war and encourage a new focus: on the provision of basic services like water, sanitation, health, and clean drinking water. It will hopefully also lead to increased economic and political empowerment for women, who are now allocated 25% of spaces in government. However, the way forward will still be an ongoing battle for the women of the new country. They will need to work together to have their say on topics that concern them and their families, improve their quality of life, the health of their children, and their standing in society.

By Melanie Lazelle, with thanks to Jane Kani Edward, of the Sudan Tribune

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