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Guests at the table? The role of women in peace processes

AuthorsAnne Itto
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Despite their active role as fighters, peacemakers and activists, women have tended to be ignored during negotiations. Former SPLM/A negotiator Anne Itto explains the disappointment she and other women negotiators felt at lack of gender sensitive provisions in the CPA.

Despite their active role as fighters, peacemakers and activists, women have tended to be underestimated or ignored during negotiations, perceived as the passive victims of war. Former SPLM/A negotiator Anne Itto explains the disappointment she and other women negotiators felt at lack of gender sensitive provisions in the CPA (beyond the creation of a bill of rights), and their subsequent efforts to help Darfurian women have more impact on the DPA.

In conclusion, she suggests that despite the lack of a level playing field for women, new democratic spaces are opening up, especially in the south, and women must mobilise effectively and seize the opportunity for more political participation.


At the Machakos and Naivasha negotiations between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) it was assumed that resolving the Sudanese conflict meant sharing power and resources between political forces along regional or geographical divides. This approach neglected other constituencies and the fact that a just and sustainable peace, based on good governance, equity, justice and democracy, requires an environment where every citizen has the opportunity to contribute to decision-making and development. In particular, Sudanese women play a very central role in their society, in physical and psychological welfare as well as conflict prevention and peacebuilding. It is therefore important that women are not just seen as passive victims, or as representatives of political parties, or as having no political affiliation or perspective, but that they are encouraged to participate fully and see their perspectives taken seriously and incorporated into solutions to political conflicts.

The complex roles of women

Women were never simply guests at the negotiating table. The roles they play as combatants, supporters of fighting forces and peacemakers qualify them to sit at the negotiating table and to assume an active role in implementation. Thousands of women had joined the southern liberation struggle in response to a political situation that affected whole communities, leaving the comfort and security of their homes not just to accompany their husbands but to fight for freedom, democracy, equity, justice, rights and dignity. Their roles in the conflict ranged from combatants to providers of support to fighters, including feeding and caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Although in any armed conflict women are victims of violence, bombing, landmines, hunger and diseases, it is not correct to portray them simply as innocent victims. In Khartoum, women contributed gold in support of the jihad and encouraged their sons to join up, while in the south, the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile women contributed food and encouraged their sons to join the SPLA to fight marginalisation and oppression by the government in Khartoum.

On the other hand, Sudanese women have worked very hard to keep families and communities together during conflicts through singing peace songs, persuading their husbands, sons and brothers to stop fighting, risking dangerous peace missions across enemy territories, or marrying across enemy lines to unite or reconcile warring communities. There were times when women stopped conflict from escalating by defying or opposing decisions by male members of the community to go to war. In one case women from a community in southern Sudan were reported to have threatened not to comply with their conjugal obligations until their husbands stopped killing each other, while in some areas of the south women threatened to expose their nakedness (a curse in most Sudanese customary beliefs) to protest ethnic conflict.

Women have also taken a leading role in creating links and forums for resolving inter-ethnic conflict, leading to many grassroots peace accords. Examples include the people-to-people processes, such as the Wunlit Covenant between the Nuer and the Dinka and the Lilir Covenant between Nuer groups. It has been reported that when it was decided by Dinka elders that a peace delegation was to be sent to Nuer land, no one wanted to go; it was the brave wife of a Dinka chief who demanded that her husband lead his people to Nuer land, even though she was aware of the high risk involved. Another example where women stood together in solidarity against their husband's political position was the period following the split in the SPLM/A. Women from both sides of the split continued to visit one another, maintain communication and provide a forum to discuss issues that affected their communities, something no man was capable of.

In order to effectively address social, economic and general problems of war facing women, many women organised themselves into groups, networks and NGOs on both sides of the political divide. These activist networks (including the Sudanese Women's Voice for Peace, New Sudan Women's Federation, and New Sudan Women's Association) went all over the world advocating peace and drawing attention to what was then referred to as 'the forgotten war.' In Washington DC, the UN Headquarters in New York, the Hague and Beijing, women lobbied the international community to pressure Sudan's warring parties to end the war.

It is clear that the absence of women at the negotiating table in Naivasha or Abuja was not due to lack of experience and capacity, but to the perceptions of their role.

A gender-blind agreement

Despite the active role women played at various levels to bring peace to the Sudan their role has tended to be underestimated or ignored during negotiations. This may have originated from the misconception that women are passive victims of war, forgetting the very important role they have played in negotiating, keeping and building peace in their communities.

The most disappointing aspect of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was that negotiations for an equitable share of power and resources were premised around political forces and regional interests. Neither mediators nor drafters gave much thought to other constituencies or dimensions, such as gender, along which power and wealth could be shared.

Yet conflict in Sudan is not just a matter of political rivalry but is triggered by many forms of marginalisation. The late Dr John Garang, the SPLM/A leader and briefly the First Vice-President of Sudan and President of Government of Southern Sudan, publicly recognised women as the 'marginalised of the marginalised.' Long before the negotiations, he used affirmative action (quotas and training) aimed at creating a critical mass of women capable of influencing policies and decisions.

The SPLM/A leadership nominated a handful of women leaders as members of the delegation to Machakos and subsequent rounds of negotiations. However, this did not necessarily enable their strong participation: the women were often co-opted to these delegations at short notice with very little opportunity to consult with each other and develop a women's peace agenda; they were expected to contribute to the overall party position which was gender-blind to begin with; and they were always a minority, ill-prepared for debates with seasoned politicians who ridiculed or intimidated anyone who dared to spend much time on gender issues.

For example, during the negotiations SPLM/A women proposed a minimum quota of 25 per cent for the representation of women in the civil service, legislative and executive at all levels of government, as provided for by the SPLM/A constitution. One senior male member of the SPLM/A delegation laughed and asked me where the women would be found to fill these positions. The 25 per cent quota was eventually accepted in the larger group, where there were at least three women, but then the all-male SPLM/A drafting committee reduced this figure to 5 per cent. The SPLM/A Chairman raised this to 10 per cent as a compromise. Later on we learned that it had been dropped altogether when government negotiators refused a quota for women in power sharing on the grounds that they had not been fighting women.

There are articles in the final agreement that recognise customs, traditions and religion as sources of moral strength for the Sudanese people; personal and family matters including marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession fall under the competency of customary law. Yet some customs and traditions have contributed to the marginalisation of women.

Even when women were consulted about gender issues or directly included in the peace negotiations, it was only a gesture to showcase democracy and inclusiveness: their perspectives and their experiences in peacebuilding and negotiation were not recognised or fully utilised.

Learning from experience

The SPLM/A women's realisation that the CPA did not require any party to achieve gender-related targets prompted them to share their experiences with Darfurian women during the Abuja negotiations. We told them how we had been shocked that the CPA – apart from making provision for a bill of rights – left women to the mercy of governments and political parties. The Darfurian women took these experiences seriously and with support from UNIFEM and other organisations (who realised they had not done enough to support the SPLM/A women), quickly started to lay down the strategy for influencing the peace process and the final document. They lobbied to be involved and the result is over 70 sections in the agreement referring to women, including the recognition of gender-based violence and the recommendation that women be involved in drafting legislation.

However, like the CPA, the DPA now relies largely on men for its implementation, and the likelihood that the DPA will be fully implemented appears very slim. Given the insensitivity of many Sudanese – particularly men – towards gender issues, it will be hard work for Darfurian women to get the government in Darfur to commit to such important initiatives as gender-sensitive police training. A lack of commitment to implementing the provisions of an agreement can render even a good agreement useless, so the full participation of women in the implementation of CPA, DPA and the recent Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement is essential. This can be achieved through the effective dissemination of the agreements and the Interim National Constitution and through building women's capacity to organise themselves to negotiate, lobby and advocate for their rights and interests.

Even though many individual Sudanese men resist gender mainstreaming, in the south the official government position is favourable to women's equality and empowerment. Consequently, the south's Interim Constitution has a 25 per cent quota for women's representation in the legislative and executive, making it unconstitutional for any government institution not to have women in decision-making positions. The President of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) has appointed women as chairpersons for the Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission, and he reportedly officially refuses to view any list of appointees for State and GoSS positions that does not include women. Currently two cabinet ministers, four Chairpersons of Parliamentary Committees and two presidential advisors are women.

On the other hand, at the Government of National Unity level, the National Congress Party, including its women leaders, opposed both a quota for women in the government and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Instead they preferred 'women's empowerment,' a vague term which does not effectively tackle the issues of rights and freedoms.

Conclusion: Maximising the benefits

The CPA ended a long and devastating war and was a source of pride for both the region and Africa as a whole because it demonstrated Africa's ability to resolve its conflicts, notwithstanding the importance of the support from the international community. However, with due respect to the achievements of all parties to the agreement, mediators and the international community, the role permitted to women during negotiations was based on a perception of them as passive victims of war, not active players in politics and society. This is clearly reflected in the CPA's lack of clear gender targets or timelines for the parties to meet, limiting the effective utilisation of women's experiences, expertise and perspectives in decision-making in the post conflict period. Democracy is about freedom and rights of participation in decision-making, but the democracy bequeathed by the CPA and DPA will be lopsided, lacking a level playing field for women.

However, the CPA did create a new democratic political space and committed the government to good governance and the rule of law, justice, equity and respect for human rights. Sudanese women need to rise to the challenge of building a solid foundation for democracy by doing everything possible to increase their political participation and create an equal and level playing field for all citizens. The greatest hope now for women across Sudan is that they will be able to expand on the Bill of Rights in the Interim National Constitution as well as effect change through the mid-term elections and effective mobilisation. The peace agreements and their shortcomings are important areas for their campaign, making women realise the need to increase their representation in legislative assemblies at state and national levels, to gain more influence to address poverty and to change how laws and budgets are drafted and implemented.