Fighting for Women's Rights in Sudan Three years ago, the government of Sudan signed a peace agreement with a rebel group. Since then, an estimated two million Southern Sudanese have returned home. But women face a specific set of challenges.
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Fighting for Women's Rights in Sudan

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Fighting for Women's Rights in Sudan

Fighting for Women's Rights in Sudan

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Now to East Africa. It's been three years since the government of Sudan signed a peace agreement with the rebel group Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Since then, an estimated 2 million Southern Sudanese have returned home. They'd fled to other parts of Sudan or to neighboring companies. Melanie Teff works with Refugees International, a Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian organization. She recently visited South Sudan and says women returning home face a specific set of challenges.

Ms. MELANIE TEFF (Refugees International): Returnees are coming back to a situation of very little. Basically, South Sudan was in a state of civil war for over 20 years in a war with the North. And everything has been destroyed. The place is really devastated. And so there's a total lack of basic services. So villages which were just about supporting the populations that they had before are now coping with doubling or trebling in size. And so services like clean water and schooling and health centers, and one could ask, well, why does that particularly hit the women?

Well, it's the women who, because of their traditional role in South Sudanese society, are the ones who take responsibility as caregivers for their families. It's the women who are lining up at water bore holes, waiting in line for huge amounts of time and getting into conflicts between other women, because of the limited resources. And it's the women who are left with having to cope with hungry children, with children who aren't getting medication in clinics and with children who are not able to get the education that maybe they were getting when they were in exile.

CHIDEYA: You've met with many of these women. Give me an example of one. One person's story that exemplifies to you some of these challenges.

Ms. TEFF: I met with a woman in a village called Malawal Bai (ph). She told me that she'd been living in Khartoum, in the capital of the North Sudan, for 20 years. I asked her, why did you come back? And she said, well, I was told it was peaceful at home. I've been waiting for so many years to be able to return to my home, and now it's possible. So I came back. She received a food ration from the U.N. World Food program for three months, which she was quite grateful for.

But she hoped at that time she was going to get seeds and tools so that she would be able to cultivate a piece of land and become self-sufficient. But that didn't happen at the time. And so she and her family used up their three-month food ration and the three months had passed. And she was very depressed at this point, pointing out that during the war, people in the village actually got more assistance than is now happening during the peace. She was emphasizing to me that she didn't want to be dependent on food-aid handouts. She was very clear that she and the other women in the village wanted to be self-sufficient, but they needed a hand-up at the start.

She also talked about the difficulty for her children, because her children had grown up in the North, which is Arabic-speaking. And now, moving back to her village, it was an English-speaking schooling system. And her children - there was no help for her children to be able to make the transition. And she talked about her fears of if her children get sick, that there really wasn't medication in the health clinic. She said if they get sick at the beginning of the week, they've got a chance. But if, say, they get malaria at the end of the week, then she was very scared that they would die of such a preventable illness.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you think about what you're doing with the very basics of human survival, what about the opportunities for advancement of women's rights? Is that even possible?

Ms. TEFF: Actually, despite these difficult conditions that I'm describing, this is, in fact, very much a moment of hope for women in Southern Sudan. One of the opportunities at this moment is the 2005 interim constitution of Southern Sudan. And it has landmark rights for women in it. It includes the promotion of women's participation in public life. It includes, importantly, a minimum political representation quota in government of 25 percent. This is really quite remarkable in South Sudan, which is very traditional society, in which women have not been recognized as political leaders in the past.

Another point I think that makes this a moment of hope is, with women returning home from exile, you have a situation where women have been living for many years in countries where they've got used to having more recognition of women's rights. So for example, there were many Sudanese women lived in Kenya in refugee camps for years. They're coming back now, and those women learned to take on leadership roles in the refugee camps in Kenya. And they expect more from women's roles when they return to Sudan. Also, with the interim constitution, the government of South Sudan has started to make some concessions towards women. For example, we met with Mithrabehi Garang (ph), who has the post of gender advisor to the president of Southern Sudan. There's also a Ministry of Women. This starts to show recognition of the importance of women's rights.

The difficulty is that, even having a 25 percent minimum quota doesn't mean that you can fill the 25 percent quota, because the lack of education for girls in the past means there's a real need to build up women's capacity so that they can start taking up those roles. As one woman politician said to me, if we, the women, don't take up the roles, the men are going to get in there and take up those posts before we do. So that's a step forward, but the problem we saw was that women started to take up these posts in Juba, in the capital of South Sudan, but it's not getting down to the local level. Women in positions of power don't get out to the villages enough, and they're very - potentially very powerful role models. And it's important that this moment of opportunity for women shouldn't just be in the capital.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about this, you sound incredibly excited by the potential What is it that you would like to see unfold, and particularly given that you are an outsider, what would like to see unfold as a partnership between people like you who come from outside of the country and the culture and people who are within the country and the culture?

Ms. TEFF: Well, I met with women's groups who had amazing initiative, local women's groups who were in the most difficult of circumstances trying to rebuild their communities. For example, we met with one women's group who were producing hand-made bricks in incredibly hot conditions. They hadn't received food to sustain them. But they were motivated to be building by hand a women's center and a returnee center to welcome back returnees. This is remarkable to see this sort of initiative in such difficult conditions.

However, they pointed out to me that they could do so much, but they needed roofing materials. Without roofing materials, when the rains come in the rainy season, it will all be washed away, their work. And that seemed to me to be an example of the sort of local women's group that needs to be supported. That groups like that can participate as they want to in the re-integration and recovery process. It's very important that the government of Southern Sudan, with the support of the international community, give support to local women's groups like these.

CHIDEYA: Well Melanie, thank you so much.

Ms. TEFF: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Melanie Teff is with Refugees International. She recently returned from a trip to Southern Sudan, where she helped with returning refugees and the advancement of women's rights.

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