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Case study: Sudan

AuthorsAnne Itto
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As part of a set of case studies shedding light on the role of women in peacebuilding, Anne Itto's article is taken from Accord issue 18 (2006), focusing on Sudan.

As part of a set of case studies shedding light on the role of women in peacebuilding, Anne Itto's article is taken from Accord issue 18 (2006), focusing on Sudan.

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.

Anne Itto


The author, a former SPLM/A negotiator, describes women’s roles in both conflict and peacemaking and argues that they were more than simply privileged ‘guests at the table’. Women were combatants and supporters of fighting forces, and also promoted peace by urging family members to lay down arms, by supporting grass-roots peace accords, and by maintaining communication across divides. Women’s groups, networks and NGOs also lobbied foreign governments and the UN. Yet the subsequent Consolidated Peace Agreement (CPA) failed to meet their expectations. Despite the presence of women, talks focused on political and regional interests, excluding a wider range of constituencies. However, the article suggests that the CPA opened up opportunities for women to engage in post-agreement politics by creating a new democratic space.


Sudan has seen multiple overlapping conflicts since the 1950s. The country’s two civil wars have resulted from fighting between the government and southern armed groups – the first from 1955–72, and the second starting in 1983 when former army colonel John Garang de Mabior formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The region of Darfur has also seen extensive fighting in the 2000s. 

The causes of conflict in Sudan are interwoven: economic, ethnic, cultural, religious and international dimensions have all played a role. At the root of each conflict are questions over the control and distribution of resources – the most important of which are land and oil. These causes are underpinned politically by the state’s crisis of legitimacy and role in economic exploitation. 

In the second civil war, Khartoum increasingly used tribal militias to fight ‘rebels’, with famine and forced migration among the intended or unintended consequences. In over 20 years of conflict more than two million people died, four million were uprooted and some 600,000 people became refugees. By 1997 a stalemate had developed between the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A, and regional and international pressure to end the violence had increased. The parties were persuaded to accept mediation from the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) states, supported by the IGAD Partners’ Forum (Italy, Norway, the UK and the US). From 2001 onwards the parties signed a series of agreements, including the Protocol of Machakos, 2002; the Protocol on Wealth-Sharing, 2004; and the Protocol on Power-Sharing, 2004. This culminated in the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005.

The recognition this process gave to the SPLM/A, and the framing of the IGAD talks as between a unified north and a unified south, alienated others who felt marginalised. These sentiments contributed significantly to the outbreak of war in Darfur in early 2003. Regional mediation, this time by the African Union, between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led to a series of talks starting in Addis Ababa in 2004. The Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was eventually signed by Abuja in 2006.

The DPA mirrored the CPA, covering power-sharing, wealth-sharing and security, but it failed to hold. A major criticism has been that Sudan’s regional peace processes have been addressed independently of each other, and have failed to bring a comprehensive approach to Sudan. At the time this Accord article was written in 2006, implementation of the CPA was uncertain, while in Darfur there was increased instability and conflict.

Article - Guests at the table? The role of women in Sudan’ s peace processes

At the Machakos (2002) and Naivasha (2004) 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 grass-roots 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 Darfur Peace Agreement (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.