SUDAN: Southern women march for end to GBV

Monday, November 17, 2008

Women marched through the Southern Sudanese town of Bor recently to highlight an important message: “Treat women with respect”.

"Bring an end to violence against women, and let women contribute to develop the nation," said some 100 women parading through the capital of the vast and swampy eastern Jonglei state.

The march was a rare message of hope for women in South Sudan - a severely underdeveloped region slowly recovering from a 21-year war that ended with the 2005 peace deal.

About 90 percent of the people in the region live on less than US$1 a day, but it is especially tough for women.

Decades of violence, coupled with traditional cultures where women are often treated as property, mean Southern Sudan has some of the worst development indicators in the world.

One in 50 women dies in childbirth and female literacy rates remain extremely low at an estimated 2 percent, while some 17 percent of girls will be married off before they reach 15, according to a 2006 government survey.

Push for equality

Now efforts are being made to try to tackle the problem. This month, representatives of women's groups and government ministries gathered in Bor for a five-day workshop on gender-based violence.

"We want women to be involved in decision-making, and to show people that women are equal to men," said John Chuol Mamuth, director of the Upper Nile Youth Mobilisation for Peace and Development Agency, which organised the meeting.

"That is why we are working to spread this message: there are many challenges but if peace will continue, the situation will change."

Women in Southern Sudan face a wide range of problems. With some 60 percent of households headed by women, many face daily sexual harassment and unequal treatment.

"Gender based violence includes underage marriage and domestic violence," said Silje Heitmann, gender officer for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Southern Sudan, which helped fund the conference.

"It hinders [the] economic and social development of Southern Sudan."

Legal challenge

Many cases of violence against women are settled by traditional courts, but these are male-dominated and closely tied to traditional values, which rarely promote the best interests of women.
"The poor situation of women … and marginalisation are caused by our customary law and culture, where the power in society is the men," said Rachael Nyadek Paul, Jonglei state minister for social development.

"But these laws are man-made things: we can decide on something new for a law."

Any change is a major challenge, but is backed by the southern leadership. The semi-autonomous region's interim constitution guarantees that at least a quarter of posts in office will be held by women.

"Understand, when I talk of women's employment, do not think I mean just the ladies who make your tea or carry your documents from office to office, or of the pretty girl who sits at your reception desk," Southern President Salva Kiir told political leaders this month.

"No, we must promote able, educated and mature women to positions of responsibility and influence if we are to ensure that we will meet the needs of the mothers and sisters and daughters in our community."

"In the past women were treated like property, [with] less value than cows," said demonstrator Akerwo Bol. "Today, because of this government, women are to come out and do what men do. They are equal."

But in a region where men must pay large numbers of cattle as part of a marriage deal – the traditional basis of the economy - others were not so impressed.

"If you pay cows for a woman, then of course you can beat her," said Akoch John, an elder. "If you want to give me your daughter for free, maybe we can talk."