Sudan & South Sudan: Women as Agents of Security

   •    June 20, 2013

This article was originally published by Sudan Tribune.

They stand shoulder to shoulder in a wide circle listening to one another’s concerns and fears. The group varied in age, religion, politics, ethnicity, etc. Regardless of their differences, a common theme peers out at all of us in the room—insecurity is growing in these two countries, and it wears many hats. I recall clearly the first comment made: “I am tired of fear.”

One mother laments her four boys’ serial battles with malaria and typhoid, completely preventable diseases. Another woman shares stories of women increasingly robbed at gunpoint as they shopped in the market to buy food. Some tell of a sharp spike in flogging, stoning, and detention of women in Sudan, and growing abductions of women in South Sudan. All share grave concern for the raging political rifts that last year shut down oil production, a critical source of income for both countries.

Their stories transcend the colloquial notion of security as freedom from harm. As with many women globally, they define security in expansive terms—freedom from fear, freedom from intimidation, and freedom to access basic resources, services, and justice. Women experience conflict and its aftermath differently than men. As such, their sense of security differs. Women reflect the realities that their communities and constituencies face in real time, which is generally far removed from high-level discussions behind closed doors. Security is more than protection by uniformed personnel, but also the provision of social services by the executive, legislative, and justice systems. Ironically, many women fear security forces rather than feel safe in their presence. Security for citizens, especially women, depends on how well state institutions respond to community needs.

Hence, women must be part of the nucleus of decision making as Sudan and South Sudan emerge from decades of violence and distrust. Women’s involvement is an antidote to insecurity. By involvement, we mean full engagement both at the table as brokers of power and as community advocates promoting change.

Former US Secretary of State has noted repeatedly that evidence buttresses the idea that equality for women correlates with improved state security and stability. Researcher Valerie Hudson writes “The very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.” An essential aspect of equality is the belief that women’s perspectives and priorities are valuable and must be included and considered strategically vital in policy development.

The Institute for Inclusive Security believes that women are critical to future peace between these two familial, yet irresolute, neighbors. We’ve been encouraging women to come together across conflict lines in Sudan, and now South Sudan, since 1999. Following separation in July 2011, the two countries signed nine peace agreements in September 2012, more than one year after the split. Despite this milestone, little headway had been made in implementing the agreements until recently. The accords address the most contentious technical issues, such as where the formal border will lie, how oil revenue will be allocated, and how security forces from both sides will protect their lands without encroachment.

The agreements must also make clear how people will traverse the new border for trade or pastoralist migration and how cross-family networks that have existed for centuries will stay connected in the midst of demarcation. However, the agreements are vague. Not many citizens have read them or have the means to engage in their implementation. Too few women have been involved in the process. There is not one woman on either six-member negotiation team. In other roles, such as senior mediators or technical experts, there is a scarcity of females.

Earlier this year the Institute convened a group of 20 women to deliberate on how to get more women engaged in the exclusive and stalled process. They met for several days during the African Union Summit sharing concerns and reviewing the nine agreements. The accords mandate the creation of more than 20 governmental committees responsible for agreement implementation. Women want to be part of the process and ensure their input is considered in discussions and reflected in resultant policies.

A key challenge for women is access to information and to the decision makers in such high-level processes. We invited several senior officials, technical experts, and advisers to illustrate the negotiation process. Many officials stated that the exclusion of women is detrimental to the peace process. The talks have become more exclusive and militarized, heavily manned by security officials from both sides. Officials explained that the biggest gap within the process is the absence of a “human” element. Discussions are focused on such issues as the technical demarcation of the border—where the actual line will be—rather than what communities need to thrive in that region.

As Apuk Ayuel notes in her rich analysis of women’s participation in the negotiations, “The Addis talks remain in disposition a battle of wills between two political parties ever so trapped in tactical maneuverings to gain the upper hand in what have become a seemingly endless process of contest over power and resources.” These mired relationships have repeatedly led to a staccato series of negotiations and re-negotiations between the two states’ senior leaders. Many call this a “war of attrition,” where both sides volley the blame for incursions on sovereignty or territory. This has led to a series of conditions imposed by both sides, which routinely results in failure to uphold or implement agreements. Exasperated with this dynamic, the 20 women declared jointly:

“We express our despair and grave concern about ongoing violence in both countries….We express frustration at the increased conditionalities imposed upon and continued lack of implementation of already signed accords. We call upon our leaders in both states and the African Union to honor their commitments and support efforts to restore peace.”

The communiqué echoes what many citizens from both sides feel—unsafe, frustrated, and weary. Their words also reflect something immensely positive and pivotal—shared hope in a united call to action. Following their declaration, the group delivered concrete and relevant recommendations to several senior officials. Their suggestions for how a small group of individuals from both sides can elevate the stagnant process addressed four key issues: security, border, citizenship, and Abyei.

While their thoughts were well received by officials, some responded with a common refrain: “Stay clear of ‘technical’ issues, such as security.” This is the paradigm we must shift. Too often, women are relegated to “soft” issues, such as education or health care. Women should engage in the forming of all institutions and policies, including constitutional reviews, setting of development priorities, economic planning, and the provision of security for communities. As their declaration states, “leveraging women’s human and intellectual capacities is key to resolving…challenges and increasing stability.”

The day we departed Addis was the most memorable. We met with senior mediators from the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, which is composed of three former African heads of state, including Chair and former South African President Thabo Mbeki. One panel member noted that this was the first time in two years of talks where a group had come together from both sides with one voice and constructive recommendations. The panel was most enthusiastic about the group’s recommendation for a consultative taskforce of women, which would ascertain community needs, share information, and monitor implementation progress. The Institute is now working with women from both countries to form this taskforce.

True security will only arrive when community needs are met—citizen safety from violence, clean water, lowered rates of maternal mortality, access to education and vocation, etc. As conduits of this information, women are essentially agents of security. Women in particular must step across divisions and together work to transform institutions from the inside and out. Women in Sudan and South Sudan did this during the war to push their leaders to sign the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Today they are stepping forward again to forge peace, and security, in their communities and between their countries.

Farah Council is the program manager for The Institute for Inclusive Security’s work in South Sudan and Sudan. She leads the organization’s efforts to advance the inclusion of women in the ongoing transition processes in and between both countries.

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