LONDON (TrustLaw) -Not so long ago, South Sudan’s founding father John Garang described the region’s women as “the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised of the marginalised.”
But as South Sudan counts down to independence on July 9, many women say things are changing.
Five years ago Ayom Wol, a media and development consultant, left her comfortable life in London to head back to South Sudan where her family comes from. She has no regrets.
“I honestly believe from everything I’m hearing there are far more opportunities here than there are there in the UK, particularly for women,” she said. “There are great opportunities for women here. I’m more than positive.”
If you look at the statistics you might think her optimism misplaced. Just 27 percent of girls are in primary school, 84 percent of women are illiterate, child marriage is common, rates of domestic violence high, brides are bartered for cattle, and a 15-year-old has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than completing school.
But Wol and others point out how far the South has come since 2005, when the North and South signed a peace deal that ended decades of civil war, granted limited autonomy to the South and paved the way for this year’s independence.
Women hold key positions in government and account for more than a third of the fledgling parliament, while many who fled the war are returning with new skills and confidence.
“Women are being elected into leadership positions in a way that certainly wouldn’t have happened traditionally,” Wol said by phone from the southern capital, Juba.
One such woman is Anne Itto, deputy secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party and minister of agriculture – a key post in a country which sees itself as a potential breadbasket.
Under South Sudan’s constitution women are guaranteed at least a quarter of seats in decision-making bodies, but in just six years women already have 34 percent of parliament seats, Itto points out.
“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,” she said on a recent trip to London.
She says women comprised 70 percent of voters during the last general elections and just over half in this year's referendum on independence.
“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,” she added.
But Wol and Itto are both educated, articulate women. Some critics have said the 25 percent quota is tokenism and won’t make much difference to the majority of poor, illiterate rural women.
Itto bristles at the suggestion. “It’s not a matter of women getting into positions and forgetting other women. But you have to be there to change things,” she said.
“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?”
Women are also making a mark in the private sector, Wol said.
“There are definitely cases where you can see organisations and 25 percent are made up mostly of tea ladies, but then you find other places where women have quite powerful positions. It’s not window-dressing at all,” she added.
Nonetheless, most girls face two big barriers to participating in public life – lack of education and early marriage.
There is a strong feeling that girls should get married early so they don’t get into trouble with boys. There are reports on the internet of girl students even being killed by their own families over allegations they are pregnant.
“In traditional culture people think girls should not go to school because they will become bad and become prostitutes and leave their culture,” said Zahara Said of the Women’s Action Network.
“Things are changing and we are encouraging more girls to go to school, but there are still high drop-out rates.”
Early marriage doesn’t just mean girls drop out of school; it also contributes to shocking rates of death in childbirth. A woman in South Sudan has a one in seven chance of dying during childbirth, according to medical agency Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Teenagers’ pelvises are often not fully developed which means the baby can get stuck. Many girls die, others suffer horrific injuries which can cause fistula, leaving them with chronic incontinence and often shunned by their community.
Recognising the importance of delaying marriage, the constitution sets the legal age at 18. But there is a significant gap between customary practices and the constitution.
However, attitudes to educating girls are changing. Mireille Girard, the U.N. refugee agency’s South Sudan representative, says a big factor deterring women refugees from returning home is the lack of education opportunities for children.
“The concern of the parents and the young girls themselves is access to secondary education. It is what gives them opportunities in life and also prevents early marriage and early pregnancy, so education is really critical to women,” Girard added.
Girard says women’s position and expectations in society started changing long before independence was on the cards. The war and break-up of communities means women have often taken on non-traditional roles, many having to find work and learn new skills to feed their children. Some have even had the chance to attend school or learn a language.
An estimated 4 million people fled during the war, some living in the North, some in neighbouring countries and others in the West.
“Displacement is a very traumatic event in which women very often have to take charge of the family, so that makes them very resilient and strong,” Girard said. “The idea is to capitalise on that and the confidence women have gained in being able to go through such a difficult situation.”
She sees agriculture and the growing service industry as areas where women can play major roles. Even the construction sector offers opportunities.
“In construction we are certainly trying to involve women in atypical jobs. Jobs are open to all in terms of the skills-training we are embarking on now for livelihood support. We are trying to shake established ideas up a bit,” she added.
Two months ago the government opened a women’s vocational training centre in Lakes state. Largely funded by donors, it will teach skills including IT, carpentry, accounting, book-keeping, masonry and mechanics, according to Sudanese media.
Agriculture is a major government target and international donors are pumping in vast sums.
Wol says it’s crucial authorities and development agencies ensure women get access to money, expertise and equipment. She adds that a lot of subsistence farming is carried out by women, but fears that they may get overlooked because of perceptions women can’t do certain agricultural tasks.
Land is another issue. Although the constitution gives women equal rights to inherit land, Wol says in many traditional societies women are not allowed to own land – another discrepancy between the official law and customary practice.
No one would dispute South Sudan’s women have a long way to go to gain equality with men, but women activists are generally optimistic.
Wol says the breakdown of traditional communities during the war means a lot of traditional expectations and limitations on women have gone.
“Definitely there’s a radicalising and transforming effect that is expected to continue,” she said. “The expectations of women here is that their position will improve considerably with independence.”
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)