An assesment from Women for Women International Founder Zainab Salbi on WfWI's work in Sudan.
I just finished scrubbing my fingernails for the fifth time today. No matter how many times I scrub I just keep finding more and more layers of dirt. Yesterday I left Sudan. There are so many layers to the complex life in Sudan. It is a huge country the size of Western Europe haunted by years of conflicts mainly due to racism and resources. It is just amazing how different the cultures are from one place to another and how different people look. I have never been in a country that is this diverse and I was shocked at what I saw over the past two weeks.
Before we departed I read a huge binder put together for me full of reports and newspaper articles, but there was nothing in that binder that spoke of the story that I saw in Sudan. There is an untold story about Sudan, no one covers issues outside of Darfur. No one shows the complicated women's movement and history of the Sudanese women. No one sees beyond Darfur.
With me on this assessment trip were my colleagues, Pat Morris, Director of Programs, Manal Omar, Regional Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and world renowned photographer, Susan Meiselas. We traveled to the Eastern and Southern part of the country. Our plans to travel to Darfur fell apart after aid workers were attacked the day before we arrived.
When we arrived in Rumbek, the expected capital of the South after the newly signed peace agreement, we were shocked to see the utter and complete destruction that resulted from nearly 30 years of wars. There is nothing standing. There isn't one house, one school, one clinic standing. Everything has been totally destroyed. Those who are lucky sleep in a tent. Those who are not, sleep in the wilderness.
It baffles me how one can talk about Sudan without mentioning the destruction in the South, the suffering of the people there, the millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees who had escaped the fighting and are living in unlivable conditions. How can someone talk about Sudan without mentioning what women went through and are still going through in terms of attacks, rape, enslavement, kidnappings and forced marriages? How can we talk about justice in one neighborhood and ignore injustice in another?
The East is haunted by a long lasting dry desert. The desert is cruel and harsh on its people who scramble for water. Everyone has to buy water. And the most economically excluded person still has to pay up to $4 a day in water and food in order to survive; this is the highest daily cost of living for a much impoverished population that I have ever encountered.
Whenever I asked a woman in the East what she needed, the answer was always: water. “And how about if you have water, would you want a radio?” I asked a woman who, although still living in the massive heat of the desert in her tent with her husband and children, she was considered a well off woman by local standards. “No, just water. After that I want schools for my children within a reasonable distance.” Yes, beyond water in the East, everyone was asking for schooling for the children as well as the adult population. “We can not progress without education,” one woman said which echoed the concerns of so many others that we spoke with. When in Khartoum I met so many daughters who were sent by their mothers with some relatives or friends across the country to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, just so they can finish their education. The things that mothers do to give a better chance to their daughters…. It brought home my own story with my mother.
Regardless where we were, we were constantly struck by the developed civil society and women’s movement in Sudan. We just could not believe what we were seeing and what we were hearing from the women. It baffled all of us how such a sophisticated civil society could not be mentioned in all of the discussion and report about around Sudan. Before our trip to Sudan, I had been meeting with the Iraqi parliamentarians, civil society members and members of the constitutional drafting committee who attended our Iraq constitution conference in Jordan. I was humbled to see how developed women’s rights were in the Sudanese constitution, how developed their women’s studies departments are in women universities, how developed women are even at the grassroots level across the country in terms of organizing themselves, registering themselves and creating and implementing a system to help those who are less fortunate within the society.
There is an untold story about Sudan and it is not only about the injustice and the needs in other parts of the country beyond Darfur, but it is about the images of its women beyond the victims that you see on the front page of the newspapers… There are women warriors out there… There are hidden warriors of Sudan who have been struggling for women’s rights and injustice and whose voices we have not heard. As my favorite Talmudic saying goes “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.”
We are currently in the process of compiling a more comprehensive report about our trip and will need all the help we can get to raise the funds to open an office in Sudan as soon as absolutely possible. There is a huge need out there and every drop of development assistance (beyond humanitarian assistance) will be crucial to building and sustaining peace in this complex country.