More on Sudan
Dispatches from the front lines of the women’s movement in Sudan:
• Watch video footage from the Sudanese women arrested at an anti-flogging protest in December. Then read the accompanying story by one of these brave activists.
• Learn about the case of Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein who was sentenced to flogging in 2009 for wearing pants
• Read female genital mutilation survivor Halima Mohamed Abdel Rahman’s plea to abolish this harmful practice
South Sudan: The Road to Freedom
“This vote has made me feel free,” remarked Mary Chan, 41, a cleaner for an international non-governmental organization based in Juba. “I haven’t been to school, but I voted because we all want freedom. My husband and I, we want our children to go to school. Their lives will be different than ours.” During the first days of voting, long lines of women like Chan waited in the baking sun for hours on end, wanting to be among the first to cast freedom votes. Some women ululated and jumped after dropping their ballots in the plastic boxes, while at one station in Juba, a man led the crowd in an impromptu chorus of ‘Hallelujah.’
"I am very happy because we are going to get our independence. Bye bye, enough," Mary Atong, 45, a mother of four said after casting her vote, saying she knew secession would be the outcome of the referendum.
For many Southern Sudanese women who endured decades of war, the referendum has offered the prospect of sustainable peace in their homeland. While the war was raging, Dolly Odwong, a women’s rights activist who spent much of the war in Juba—which was a northern Sudanese army garrison town during the war—remembers that she and other women activists “focused on peace while everyone was focused on fighting. No one thought it would come,” she recalls.
Odwong held trainings in what is now the southern capital while aerial bombardments by the Sudanese Armed Forces rained down outside. "Every day there was trauma," she says. "There was fear. My son almost drown in the [Nile] river. I hid him near the riverside but he ran into the water. He couldn’t swim. When the bombs fell in the hospital [in Juba], most of the men were in the battlefield. So it was mostly women and children. You know, this secession—let me tell you. Independence. We are not thinking about it in terms of Southern Sudan is going to be rich. Everyone wants independence to come because in our hearts we feel we are going to have freedom in our places. For so long, any time, we have expected that there will be bombing again. Now we think this is the end, and we won’t go back to the bush. The coming generation will not feel the way we felt. We don’t want them running the way we were running. And hiding.
Because when the war started everybody had to run and hide from the raids. It was a real trauma. In the bush people died on the way because they were hungry.”
The stark difference between war and peace has been evident in the south since the 2005 peace deal was signed, but cattle-raiding, intercommunal violence, and violence against women are a few of the many challenges that the nascent southern government will have to confront in the years ahead.
And the human rights situation in the south is not as positive as Southern Sudanese officials suggest. “Women are free in the south, it is not like the north!” the southern government’s minister of internal affairs told me before referendum voting began. While this may be true on paper—in the south’s interim constitution and in police training handbooks—it did not hold true in practice in the weeks before the January referendum, when more than 5,000 newly trained police were deployed in the Southern Sudanese capital of Juba. Although many were well-behaved, some new officers inflicted physical punishment upon women who were wearing jeans, sleeveless tops, or who had braided “Rasta”-style dreadlocks.
It would be inaccurate to compare the punishment endured by women in the south due to customary law practices with the uniform harshness of Sharia law meted upon women in northern Sudan. Under Sharia law, ill-disciplined security forces continue to arbitrarily harass women for poorly defined crimes, including wearing pants.
Yet human rights experts agree that equal respect and rights for women are not ingrained in the cultures of any of the south’s multitude of ethnic groups. “In Southern Sudan, most tribes live by traditions and customs that are inherently discriminatory against women and girls,” says Jehanne Henry, who leads Human Rights Watch’s research on Sudan, noting that traditional practices among many groups “clearly erode the basic rights of women and girls.” A combination of factors impede women’s rights in Southern Sudan, and Henry says that “human rights advocates in Southern Sudan will have to work very hard in coming years to start to change these practices and bring social practice in line with the basic rights that the constitution guarantees to all citizens.” . . .