Women for Women International launched operations in southern Sudan, an area almost entirely without basic infrastructure, such as roads, health facilities or schools. The media and international community have focused much of their attention on Darfur. However, that region is only one piece of a complex puzzle and it appears that much of the world has very little understanding of the devastating reality beyond Darfur. Women for Women International sent an assessment team to Sudan in July 2005 to evaluate the feasibility of helping the country's socially excluded women rebuild their lives, families and communities after conflict. What began as a two-week trip has turned into a long-term commitment to working in southern Sudan. We witnessed Sudan's harsh realities firsthand. We found a vast country with a tangled and complex history of conflict history that you can see on the faces of the Sudanese people.
We conducted extensive interviews with women at the grassroots level and met with representatives from the government and community based organizations (CBOs). We confirmed reports that women are bearing the brunt of the horror, suffering through unthinkable acts of gender-based violence and sexual slavery, trying to manage survival for them and their families in what were often subhuman living conditions. Amid the horror stories, we also found hope. We discovered a strong civil society and an organized women’s movement with clear optimism for the future of Sudan and keen insight into what is needed to make those hopes a reality. If the international community plans to assist with the country’s reconstruction in any meaningful way, it must seek the wisdom and counsel of Sudanese women.
Sudan gained its independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956. It has spent most of the years since then embroiled in what has been called “one of Africa’s longest running civil wars.” A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January 2005, which achieved a fragile peace between rebel forces in southern Sudan and the government in Khartoum, but the protracted violence and insecurity have devastated Sudan’s infrastructure and the country currently ranks near the bottom of nearly all development indices. What makes the situation in Sudan so complex is that there are currently three separate, highly volatile situations in different parts of the country. While there are hopes that the CPA will help to stabilize the country as a whole, it only directly addresses the situation in the South. Sudan’s Darfur region is in the western part of the country, near the border with Chad. In 2004, the United States government issued a statement saying that violence in Darfur had risen to the level of genocide.4 The United Nations is expected to dispatch a contingent of peacekeepers to the Darfur region to supplement existing forces from the African Union. While the international community focuses on Darfur, Sudanese people in other parts of the country are trying to maintain the fragile peace as they begin rebuilding their country.
The following issues are those most frequently mentioned by the women we interviewed as being critical to the country’s future: income generation and employment opportunities for women; girls’ education and illiteracy among women; access to resources, including water, electricity, housing and jobs; customary and family laws regarding early marriage, wife inheritance, ghost marriage and criminal ramifications of adultery, polygamy and divorce rights; gender-based violence; and women’s health, including HIV/AIDS, female genital cutting, reproductive health and maternal and infant mortality and morbidity.
We spoke with Sudanese women’s organizations that are deeply committed to these issues. These organizations are also in dire need of resources and support to build and sustain their organizational capacities. They identified the following primary needs: expand the reach and resources of
CBOs through international partnerships; train women leaders in advocacy, coalition-building strategies and negotiation skills; launch a national advocacy program about the importance of including women in reconstruction and transitional development agendas at the local, regional and national levels; promote organizational and staff development with tools and financial resources that improve institutional capacity.
A critical window of opportunity exists for women’s participation in the development and reconstruction of Sudan. During our assessment, we uncovered both a great need and a great desire for our services and resources, particularly in southern Sudan. Not only has the protracted civil war destroyed any semblance of infrastructure, but the area has some of the highest female illiteracy and malnutrition rates in the world. Over the last several months, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees have begun to return to southern Sudan. It is expected that more than a third of Sudan’s two million IDPs will ultimately return to this region as Southern Sudan secedes from the rest of the country. Economic opportunities for women are vital in making sure that women are fully involved at all levels of society as Southern Sudan establishes itself as the world's newest nation. Despite the devastation wrought by protracted conflict, the population, especially women, is eager and hopeful for change. Women for Women International aims to use our expertise with women and post-conflict societies to help integrate socially excluded women and women’s organizations in Sudan’s reconstruction and development.
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