News and Views on Africa from Africa
Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
Subscribe to our RSS feed
RSS logo

Latest news


Women and war

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Three years ago, Arab raiders kidnapped Akwal from her home in southern Sudan along with her four children. During her captivity, she lived through frequent beatings and ill-treatment. "Sometimes we had no food for two days," she recalls

The first time she tried to escape, Bak received severe beatings which tore her upper lip. In spite of this, she did eventually manage to escape with two of her children and find her way home. "If they had caught me the second time, they would have killed me," she said.

Elsewhere, Elizabeth Henry, 19, considers herself to be lucky to be alive. She is among over 36,000 people who were expelled from their homes in the western Upper Nile region (Wahdah State) of southern Sudan, where oil concessions operated by consortiums of Sudanese government and foreign oil companies are sited.

Western Upper Nile has been the scene of fierce fighting between government troops and those of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The government has been accused of deliberately depopulating the area in order to make way for oil exploration and extraction.

"There was bombing all the time, and those who survived were shot by government soldiers coming on foot," Henry, who now lives in neighbouring Bahr al-Ghazal narrates. "Even my husband was killed. I have been going on foot for three months carrying my two-year-old daughter," she adds.

The stories of Bak and Henry are captured by Mary Anne Fitzgerald in her new book "Throwing the stick forward: the impact of war on southern Sudanese women".

The book, published on 25 October by Operation Lifeline Sudan - the United Nations body under the umbrella of which UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs out relief work in disputed regions of southern Sudan - chronicles the extent of hardships southern Sudanese women face as a result of the 19-year civil war.

The book, sponsored by the UN Children's Fund and the UN Women's Development Fund with some funding from the Royal Dutch government, contains detailed accounts of the abductions, rape, displacements and fear women affected by the civil are regularly exposed to. It documents Sudanese women's daily fight for survival in a harsh environment.

Southern Sudanese women, the author notes, have one of the poorest quality of life indices in the world - one doctor for every 222,000 people, a 90-percent illiteracy level and one of the highest maternal mortality rates globally. This means that women are more often weakened by anaemia, inability to do sums, as well as loss of self-esteem resulting from cultural bias against their participation in community activities.

The author also laments the scanty involvement of women in the ongoing Sudanese peace process, even though the war has left them with many tasks usually reserved for men, most whom are involved in the fighting.

And yet if peace comes and development follows, the women of southern Sudan would be expected to overcome their acute trauma and contribute in new ways to the future of heir communities, she adds. "All but a handful of those sitting around the table discussing the future of Sudan are men. Yet women in many of the cultures in southern Sudan have a traditional role as peacemakers, and it is the women who have suffered some of the worst forms of abuse during the course of this terrible war," Fitzgerald notes.

The book seeks to find a way forward, within the context of the culture and circumstances shaping southern women's perspectives, and to establish a platform from which their voices can be heard, according to the author. Women have been and could again be a positive force for improvement, but they face many obstacles, according to Fitzgerald.

The impact of war on southern Sudanese women has not only eroded women's status but is also undermining their participation in critical decision-making. Despite avowals made on paper, the participation of women in the decision-making structures of the SPLM/A, which controls large swathes of southern Sudan, is minimal, according to the book. "Women's associations only work with the county commissioner, who has no mandate to promote women's issues," it notes.

In both the Muslim-dominated north and the more Christian and animist south, women outnumber men in various disciplines, mainly because men have to go and fight. In the north, for example, women have ample representation in politics, the judiciary, in universities and in diplomacy, according to Muhammad Ahmad Dirdeiry, the Sudanese charge d'affaires in Kenya.

There was also one woman member of the Sudanese government delegation currently in Kenya negotiating peace with the SPLM/A, Dirdeiry added. "Islam is understood as a religion which discriminates against women. This is because of extremist groups like the Taliban. But in Sudan, women are not discriminated against. In some ministries, women even outnumber men," he said.

However, according to Fitzgerald, extraordinary demands on women in the south resulting from the war are affecting girls' education more disproportionately that boys'. "There is no doubt that the war has penalised women when it comes to the division of labour. Military conscription has twisted cultural practice to free men from traditional obligations and chained women to a greater number of household and food-security chores," the book notes.

This new situation appears to have translated itself into a cultural norm to the extent that even where men are present, they do not make themselves available to support the women. Women's work is made even more tedious by the scarcity of boreholes from which they can fetch water, and of grain-grinding mills. "The women do three-quarters of the work. We are oppressed," a woman from Upper Nile told the author.

"If you have only sons, then you do all the work. If any of the tasks is not performed, the man will fight you. Men are meant to cut wood and smear mud on the walls. Now they leave the work and tell us to do it. Women are now even fishing. We are now making fishing nets. That used to be the work of men. Men go to the forest, thatch the roof. Their other job is to meet with ladies and produce children. The rest is done by the women," she adds.

The book cites enormous disparity in school enrolment between males and females. An 11-year-old girl quoted in the book noted that she was lucky to be one of two girls in a class with 106 boys. Her sisters were not in school because her father forbade them to go.

As refugees, southern Sudanese women, particularly from the pastoralist Dinka community, have to fight against sexual violence and the constant threat of abduction by family members seeking to marry them off in exchange for cattle. "We flee the Sudan and our problems follow," a woman living in the Kakuma refugee camp, in northern Kenya , whose name is given as Mary Nyadier, said an interview.

Among others things, the book urges authorities in both northern and southern Sudan to break this culture of impunity by strengthening their administrative and legal systems to ensure that those who commit such crimes against women and girls get punished.

Samson Kwaje, the SPLM/A spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya, however, defends the movement against accusations that it has no women delegates participating in the ongoing peace process in Kenya. "Women have been very active in all aspects of the struggle. We are also empowering them. There are many NGOs run by women. We also have women delegates in the talks," he told IRIN.

According to Kwaje, SPLM/A has at least five women delegates listed as delegates to the ongoing peace talks, sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). However, the movement did not have funds to enable the women to travel to Kenya for the current round of talks.

But Fitzgerald also notes that the lives of southern Sudanese women are not all about woes and tribulations. In many crisis-prone areas, women have shown determination to be part of the decision-making process leading to peace. They are spearheading local peace initiatives. "Despite their precarious situation, these women demonstrate clarity of purpose and vibrant, logical thinking when articulating their aspirations," the author notes.

This attitude is summed by Elizabeth Otieno of the New Sudan Conference of Churches. "Women are fed up with the war. They don't even know why it's going on. They are always asking the men to stop it. The women are coming out and talking. They have even stood up and said they won't bear any more sons if they are going to be sent to the front lines," she said.

In some relatively stable regions in southern Sudan, women are coming together with the help of local and international NGOs to participate in income-generating projects such as tailoring, soap-making, baking and catering.

Moreover, some refugee women in Kenya have formed support groups in which they can learn income-generating skills, although they lack formal education and face difficulties accessing credit facilities. "We came together so we would not fight in a strange land as our husbands are fighting. It doesn't matter who our husbands are. We share the same problems. When working together, the strangest love affairs develop. We do not speak evil of our men," notes Pauline Riak, who heads the Sudanese Women's Association, based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Contact the editor by clicking here Editor