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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

On issues like oil, negotiators struggle. The majority of petroleum deposits lie in South Sudan, while most refineries, pipelines, and export ports are in the North. Women realize the communities that will be deeply impacted by oil drilling and transport need to be involved in the decisions that affect them – and have pushed for them to have a voice. Women have identified ways in which entire communities could determine how and where to build oil transport routes and drilling facilities so that impacts on farmland and the environment are mitigated.

Women want countries to avoid past mistakes

The need for women to be involved in high-level decisions is just as acute after separation. Both countries are writing new constitutions, reforming laws, and redesigning elections. Fortunately, women are preparing for these challenges as well. They’re organizing to preserve decades of hard-fought gains, such as laws requiring state and national legislatures to comprise at least 25 percent women.

They’re also working to ensure that their new countries don’t repeat old mistakes: They want foundational documents like constitutions to accommodate religious, tribal, ethnic, and other forms of diversity. Ultimately, they want to avoid the practices of marginalization that contributed to war in the first place.

In a climate where almost no one – Sudanese or not – will go near the topic, several women have already called for joint reconciliation and healing processes. They assert that to break the cycle of violence, relationships can’t remain frozen where they were when the war ended. Women want both countries to engage in truth telling, accept accountability, show remorse, and commit to not offend or avenge again. They want it to happen between and within both new countries, and they want their leaders to accede that as neighbors, there won’t be genuine stability without it.

Secretary Clinton, US Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman, and others in the administration understand that to end the current fighting and prevent more, women need to be at the negotiating table. They’ve called on the new nations to take decisive steps to consolidate progress. Returning to talks with significantly more senior-level women negotiators would constitute just that.

Jacqueline O’Neill is the director of The Institute for Inclusive Security. The Institute uses research, training, and advocacy to promote the inclusion of all stakeholders, particularly women, in peace processes. Previously, she worked at the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and at Sudan’s Ahfad University for Women.

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