Today, the world welcomes a new country into the global family: the Republic of South Sudan. In a historic referendum last January, roughly 99 percent of people living in Sudan’s southern regions voted for independence from the Northern government. For a country that endured Africa’s longest civil war–a brutal campaign of violence in which 4 million were displaced, 2 million were killed and 2 million women were raped–this vote represented the first opportunity for southerners to articulate their own vision for the future, in peace.
Women for Women International (http://www.womenforwomen.org/) welcomes the new Republic of South Sudan, where we have been providing a number of services to marginalized women since 2006. For the women of South Sudan, independence is a symbol of peace and equality. Without women, we would never have achieved peace, or achieved independence. Without the voice of women, there would be no South Sudan.
It’s true. Women have been a tremendous force for peace and active architects of the new republic. 52 percent of the voters during the referendum were women, and many women returned to the South after years of displacement to take part in the historic vote. 60 percent of the families that returned to South Sudan to vote in the referendum were led by a single woman. Participants in Women for Women International’s rights and vocational skills training program proudly walked together to the polling stations, showing their community the importance of their participation in the historic vote. Despite exclusion from formal peace talks, women have campaigned tirelessly for their voices to be heard. Moving forward, the Constitution states that 25 percent of the seats in the legislature must be held by women. Currently, women hold 34 percent of parliamentary seats in South Sudan. Research shows that governments with higher percentages of women in power show decreased corruption and increased attention to humanitarian and development needs–key priorities for a new country emerging from war and needing to build services, infrastructure and a peaceful future.
Yet despite this inspiring progress, today is not only a day of celebration, but of reflection on the the work still ahead. We call upon the international community to rededicate itself to ensuring that true peace is achieved in Sudan and in the new Republic. Although a formal peace agreement was signed in 2005, the new nation has not been at true peace. An unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout disputed border territories. It is estimated that 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei, a disputed border region, and at least another 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Northern Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. Reports indicate that aerial bombings have killed civilians.
As in all wars, women are at a particularly high risk of violence. There were 2 million rapes during the civil war, and women and their children are always the majority of displaced persons. The 2010 State Department Human Rights Report points to violence and discrimination against women as a growing problem in South Sudan. “Security, development and education are the top priorities for women of South Sudan now,” says Mayik. “And for us to achieve a democratic South Sudan, this requires women’s active participation in all community and national matters.”
On this Independence Day, there is much work to be done, and women can lead the way forward. Women in our programs are courageously tilling their fields to feed their families and investing in the education and protection of future generations–building the foundations of an emerging civil society that is the bedrock of a stable nation. WfWI-Sudan agriculture trainer Rebecca Yar says she prays for a nation that upholds the dignity of the human person, putting an end to what she describes as the “cruelties of the past.” For her, the kind of commercial farming programs Women for Women is conducting in the countryside are laying the groundwork for a self-sufficient country, while opening needed sources of food and income in South Sudan’s under-developed rural areas.
As South Sudan continues down its path to peace and prosperity, the international community must take steps to protect women’s rights and provide space for them to share in articulating the future vision for this emerging country. “This is the end of a war, but it is only the beginning for my new country,” says Mayik, “we cannot do it without the women, and the women cannot do it alone. The violence must stop. Women must be supported in our efforts to create a peaceful future for our families, communities and this new country, starting today.”