Opinion: What is holding women in South Sudan back?

Opinion: By Jane Kani Edward
South Sudan’s women marching during the commemoration of World International Women’s Day marked on 8 March 2020/ Photo: Zain

April 5, 2020 (Thessherald)–The formation of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU) on February 22, 2020 featured the appointment of nine women to cabinet posts.

Some might view the appointment as a great progress for women’s empowerment and participation in decision-making process. At the first glance, it might also appear that South Sudan has come a long way in ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment due to such high-profile appointments. However, a closer look at these appointments, and in particular the criteria of selection, the qualifications of the appointees, and their relationships to those making the appointments, a clear picture emerges; one that does not reflect genuine efforts from the part of the government to engender a tangible gender equality. Despite the appointment of women to key cabinet positions, one question remains unanswered.

What is holding women in South Sudan back?

The year 2020 marks 25 years of the historic outcome of the United Nations Fourth Women’s World Conference in 1995 – the “Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.” The platform outlined twelve critical areas of concern, including “women and poverty; education and training of women; women and health; violence against women; women and armed conflict, among others.

Obviously, South Sudan Transitional Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights of women in Africa are good steps toward achieving women’s empowerment.

Additionally, the passage of laws and adoption of policies geared toward addressing inequalities, such as the allocation of 35% affirmative action for women representation in all levels of government represent major achievements. Nonetheless, despite the breakthrough in institutional mechanism for the advancement of women, the overwhelming challenges facing South Sudanese women persist.

Violence against women, and women and armed conflict are two of the critical areas of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action. Despite the signing of successive peace agreements since 2015, South Sudanese women continue to experience gender-based violence and other forms of human rights abuses, including rapes, gang-rapes, killing, intimidation, just to mention a few. While it is true that all women are affected by armed conflict, their experiences of war and sexual and gender-based violence vary from one individual to another based on their personal locations and other forms of social difference. It is clear that the majority of women, who bore the brunt of sexual and gender-based violence, reside in rural areas of South Sudan. Similarly, women living in low-income communities in Juba and other ‘major cities’ in South Sudan, might experience the effects of war differently, as compared to senior government officials, such as female Ministers, Members of Parliament (MPs), and the economically privileged.

Indeed, the adoption of the 35% gender-based quota system to redress societal gendered inequities represents a positive step toward ensuring women’s participation in decision-making positions. Unfortunately, lack of political will to fully implement laws and provisions, such as the gender-based quota system becomes an obstacle to achieving gender equality and sustainable development. For instance, the 35% women’s affirmative action for women, with its emphasis on political representation is insufficient to address the underlying societal and structural issues that continue to hold South Sudanese women back.

Considering the fact that the vast majority of the appointed female Ministers, Deputy Minister, and the female Vice President share familial, ethnic, and other affinities with the ruling elites, past and present, the decision of their appointment was not meant to steer change and transformations in women’s lives and gender issues. Rather, it was a calculated political tactic deliberately arranged by the ruling elites, who are more interested in power and wealth, to appeal to the international community for sympathy and support.

Thus, the gender-based quota is reduced to tokenism and rewarding loyalists, family members, friends, and those well-connected to the male leadership of the various SPLM factions. Furthermore, appointing women who lack the skills and knowledge to perform their duties effectively not only reflects poorly on the image of South Sudanese women, but also the country. It further encourages others, and in particular those opposed to the adoption of the 35% affirmative action for women, to question the logic of maintaining it, especially, if the affirmative action does not seem to serve its intended purpose of empowering women and achieving gender equality.

Likewise, there is a common assumption that placing women in power and decision-making positions could lead to changes in the lives of all women in a given society for a better. The logic is that by being in these high ranking positions, women will be able to advocate for women and gender specific issues and policies. Although such a postulation succeeded in some societies where female MPs, for instance, pursued gender-sensitive policies and laws favorable to women’s empowerment and promotion of gender equality; in South Sudan, unfortunately, the appointment of women in decision-making positions did not translate into concrete transformations in the lives of ordinary South Sudanese women.

Since the majority of women in senior government positions primarily pledge allegiance to their political party, party leadership, and family ties, concerns about the wellbeing of their constituencies remain secondary.

No doubt, South Sudanese women, particularly those leading civil society organizations, such as the South Sudan Women’s Coalition for Peace (SSWCP), and others are making efforts to advocate for women’s rights and empowerment through publication of press statements, meetings, and so on. Although these activities are useful in highlighting women’s concerns, they are not enough to change the predicaments of women in South Sudan and refugee camps.

Similarly, female MPs and senior government officials have not used their positions in the parliament and the cabinet to speak up and take actions against violations of women’s rights due to tribalism, patronage, and party loyalty, as well as fear of losing one’s position.

The road to achieve gender equality, women’s empowerment, and the full realization of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development in South Sudan is littered with many, political, socio-cultural, and structural obstacles.

The appointment of women to cabinet positions does not necessarily indicate vital shifts in gendered forms in South Sudan. Therefore, there is a need for women to move beyond the narrow prescription of the 35% affirmative action and explore other effective options to untangle and uplift themselves from the constrains of societal norms, patriarchal tendencies, and discriminatory policies that tend to devalue, demean and marginalize women in South Sudan.

Building bridges between women in positions of power and ordinary women is a key step to make this shift possible.

Jane Kani Edward is associate clinical professor and director of African immigration research project at the Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, New York City, U.S.

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