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Opinion

What North and South Sudan need now: more women at the negotiating table

Sudan may have split into two new countries, but the violent disagreements continue. New talks must include more women. Their exclusion from these negotiations is a cause of instability, not its cure.

By Jacqueline O’Neill / July 18, 2011



Washington

A little over a week ago, the largest country in Africa split in two. But violence continues between the two new countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rightly called on the new nations to “quickly return to the negotiating table.”

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The “redoubling” of American engagement could give new momentum to stalled talks. It also presents an opportunity for the American, Sudanese, and international partners to re-think who should be welcomed back to the negotiating table.

For years, I’ve worked with Sudanese women who cross regional, political, tribal, and other divides to end violence. During the years of war between north and south, they’d gather under the shade of trees to resolve disputes and organize communities to make peace. Now, as these women call for a formal place at the table to determine the two countries’ future, they’re often told progress is simply too tenuous to allow for “new” voices. But a new round of negotiations is an opportunity to acknowledge what these women have been saying for years: Their exclusion is a cause of instability, not its cure.

The peace agreement that ended Sudan’s decades-long civil war called for decisions on borders, citizenship, wealth sharing, and other key issues to be made before separation. The African Union is facilitating talks between the two major parties, yet most issues remain unresolved. Recently, horrific violence has broken out, particularly in border areas. The UN estimates that in the state of South Kordofan alone, 73,000 people have fled their homes in the past few weeks.

If the current talks don’t resolve these and other major issues through a process that incorporates the perspectives of a broad set of Sudanese citizens – particularly women – violence will continue to roil just below the surface, ready to erupt at any time.

On-the-ground knowledge, practical solutions

There are strong and capable women at senior levels of both parties. Yet, when the parties named their lead negotiators, neither six-member team included even one. Estimates of each side’s extended team say there are, at best, five women out of more than fifty negotiators.

Unwilling to be excluded, Sudanese women have crossed traditional boundaries to organize themselves. In the South Sudanese city of Juba last February, more than 100 women from throughout the country gathered to tackle the most contentious issues in the negotiations, including divisive questions around citizenship.

Women emphasized how many families across Sudan include one spouse from the North and one from the South. They talked about how family obligations – such as weddings, funerals, and tribal disputes – require wives to travel across borders frequently to their home village. Women explained that if they’re unable to move freely between the two new countries, the fabric of entire communities will be eroded. Jointly, they called for parties to allow dual citizenship for men and women.

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