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Q+A with Anne Itto: Is women's position in South Sudan changing?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 20 Jun 2011 19:23 GMT
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By Emma Batha

Anne Itto is one of the most senior women in South Sudan politics. She is deputy secretary general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and agriculture minister – a key post in a country which has ambitions to become a major breadbasket. TrustLaw’s Emma Batha spoke to Itto during a recent trip to London.

Q: Has the position of women in South Sudan changed?

A: The current political space that women enjoy came from the liberation struggle which was lead by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. It was in 1994 that the movement decided to adopt an affirmative action policy that gave women 25 percent representation in any decision-making (body) and they would be allowed also to participate in the remaining 75 percent.

The idea was that because of history and culture women were left behind. Giving them 25 percent representation would be like a stepping-stone so that they can catch up. We got that 25 percent from the days of our liberation struggle and we put it in the constitution of the Government of South Sudan.

(But following the election in 2010) our representation is no longer 25 percent.  Women enjoy 34 percent representation in parliament and 30 percent in the executive (branch) – just within six years.

I believe we can only get better because during the elections 70 percent of voters were women.  And during the referendum 52 percent of those who voted were women. You can see how women have been deciding the direction of things, and our government is very aware of that. And we believe we can use those successes in negotiating for a better position in an independent Republic of South Sudan, so we are not going backwards.

We believe communities are mobilised – in fact in Eastern Equatoria the paramount chief who has been elected by other chiefs is a woman.  And, you know, chiefs are the most traditional setting and already they are willing to elect a woman as a leader.   

We also believe the appointments of women in the executive (branch) is going to make a big difference. There are seven women ministers in very key positions … and we have a woman minister in the office of the president making sure the president is reminded of his promises to women voters.

Q: But you are all very educated articulate woman, but the majority of women are not.

A: “If you know Rwanda, they started by numbers, and when you create a critical mass in government that’s when you can begin changing policies and the laws that affect them.

“We didn’t get into politics because we wanted to be there with men. We wanted to change things … It’s not a matter of women getting into positions and forgetting other women. But you have to be there to change things.  If we are not there - if we are all outside - who is going to be making sure that when you are doing public service reform you take care of women? When you are talking about housing you take care of women? When you are talking about peace you take care of women?”

Q: What are the biggest hurdles for women in South Sudan?

A: Stereotyping is still a big hurdle you have to deal with. Some women can be scared by stereotyping and as a woman climbs up the ladder you get more enemies, more insults. And some people do not want their families to hear such insults so they sit back.

Before you get anywhere you have to be twice as efficient as a man is, because if not, you meet with challenges.

Q: What about issues like education and early marriage?

Those ones – education and early marriage, forced marriage - these are not things we change overnight. You can have the best of laws, but something when it becomes a habit, a practice, a tradition, it will take five, ten years to move people out of it. When something is a habit you can have the laws, but you have to change people’s attitudes. You have to change sometimes the heavy labour on women so that it doesn’t end up on the girl child that prevents her performing in school.

It may be technology. It may be addressing poverty so that the mother of that child can deal with her own load allowing her daughter to go to school.  In some places it is the economy – young girls become currency and that requires both addressing poverty but also people’s thinking.

Personally, I think in six years we have done a tremendous job, at least in acquiring the right numbers in key decision-making positions and now we have to embark on changing policies, laws, habits and create opportunities for women – and most of the women are rural - so I think that’s the most important thing.

Q: Some people say this 25 percent quota is just window-dressing.

A: If that is the case, how come it has been translated in the votes? Seventy percent of those who voted in the general election were women, and 52 percent of those who voted during the referendum were women, so women brought freedom to South Sudanese. Is that still window-dressing? It’s not.

What I believe is the situation is you can get the numbers right, but changing traditions and habits requires money, requires time. It’s not window-dressing. For example, the opportunity created in South Sudan is great, but now changing the whole south requires planning, requires investment. There is nothing that happens without investing in it.

And I believe if we continue at the same pace our next step is changing policies and directing government budgets into areas that will address issues of poverty generally, but also focus on building women’s capacity and creating opportunities for them.

Q: The late SPLM leader John Garang once said South Sudan’s women were the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised of the marginalised. Do you agree?

A: I was working in his office (at the time) and I agree with it, but that does not mean that we haven’t moved. That does not mean that there has not been any change. Actually, we have brought real change to the whole of Sudan. In Khartoum there used to be no women judges. Now there are … because we brought the idea of putting women in decision-making positions. And Khartoum’s political parties, even the most traditional ones in the north, saw this as a challenge because women were going to walk away from their parties and join the SPLM and they started changing.

The last general election, isn’t that a success? Dr John (Garang) believed and worked very hard to create space for women and it’s now paying off.  

Q: Are they still the poorest and most marginalised?

A: I said we are changing things, and I am saying it will not take one year… We are changing maybe more than you (in Britain).

Those that work in London … they think what Britain has achieved in 200 years can be achieved in six years. That’s not possible. People in the West have had opportunities to build their democracy and create opportunities. Ours is just six years. And in six years,  if you can get 34 percent representation in the parliament and 30 in the executive (branch)…

The most important (thing) now is that those women must make sure they create ladders for women to climb.

See also:

What does independence mean for South Sudan's women?

FACTBOX: Women in South Sudan

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