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A group of women refugees from South Sudan with their toddlers ;

Why women must seize the 'constitutional moment' in South Sudan, the world's youngest nation

Forward Thinking series
Catherine Vitaliano

ALC Fellow, MSc Global Leadership & Peacebuilding

08 March 2023

As South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, works towards a permanent constitution and its first ever election in December 2024, women’s participation at all levels of this process is paramount. The conflict that erupted in 2013 – two years after independence – and continued until 2016, affected women and girls disproportionately. Despite this, and despite making up nearly half the population, women and girls have been excluded from participating in the nation-building process.

The country’s history of constitution-making tells a story of an exclusive and elite-driven process, detached from citizens’ aspirations, resulting in limited ownership and implementation. To ensure legitimacy for the new constitution, it is critical to include intergenerational women. Inclusion will bring valuable skills and experiences essential for achieving sustainable peace and addressing specific needs and concerns of women and girls.

Retracing the conflict

The conflict in South Sudan began in December 2013 as political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and the current First Vice President Riek Machar. It shifted rapidly to full-fledged violence between the Dinka ethnic group to which Kiir belongs, and the Nuer ethnic group to which Machar belongs.

The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediated a truce between the warring parties, resulting in the signing of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015.

Despite this agreement, violent conflict erupted again in July 2016 between the major parties. In 2017, the international community intervened again and facilitated the High-Level Revitalisation Forum (HLRF), a process that resulted in the Revitalised-ARCSS or R-ARCSS.

The prolonged conflict from 2013 to 2016 had multiple underlying causes, and it devastated the country, leading to a humanitarian crisis, socio-economic destruction, political instability, and widespread human rights abuses.

Impact on women and girls

Women and girls have suffered great physical and psychological trauma due to the conflict. Reports on human rights by the United Nations have highlighted widespread sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan. A UNICEF (2019) report stated that “1 out of 4 reported cases of conflict-related sexual violence is a child.”

Yet, the resilience and strength of South Sudanese women is demonstrated by their sense of agency throughout the conflicts. As stakeholders in formal and informal peacebuilding processes – through organised women’s groups, coalitions and political parties – they brought unique perspectives and strategies to peace negotiations, and their involvement led to an inclusive peace agreement, the R-ARCSS.

Some of the most notable gains South Sudanese women have made include: the allocation of more seats to women in various implementing mechanisms of the R-ARCSS through a 35 per cent women’s quota and a post for a female vice president; devolution of power to lower levels of governance; a provision on the protection of women, children and people with special needs; and accountability, justice and reparations for wartime crimes including sexual violence.

Beyond tokenism: women’s participation in rebuilding South Sudan

Article 16 of the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan (TCRSS) stipulates the ‘Rights of Women.’ Article 16(4)(a) provides for 35% affirmative action intended to enhance women’s participation and representation in public life. The country has also acceded to international conventions such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and recently the Protocol to The African Charter on Human Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol).

Despite making these commitments, women’s representation and the inclusion of women’s views and voices have largely been neglected. State-building and peacebuilding processes in South Sudan instead mimic a liberal approach, prioritising stability over demands for an equitable society and participatory governance. Women in South Sudan remain underrepresented in leadership positions or are given token seats, often at the periphery of national discourse. There has been limited accountability on implementation of affirmative action at all levels of government. Such drawbacks frustrate the strides made towards women’s emancipation and empowerment.

The unique experiences of women and girls during conflict position them to best articulate and co-create the post-conflict environment. Ensuring women’s inclusion in the South Sudan constitution-making process can promote gender equality, diversity, women’s political participation, the rule of law, and peace and stability. These outcomes are vital for building more just, equitable, and peaceful societies.

Why women must seize this ‘constitutional moment’

Many barriers prevent equal participation of women in the constitution-making and nation-building processes, including hostility in decision-making spaces, patriarchal attitudes, high levels of illiteracy, and little to no inter-generational dialogue.

An increase in quotas is not sufficient to achieve gender equality; therefore, South Sudanese women should seize the ‘constitutional moment’ as a key entry point to negotiate constitutional texts that will facilitate and safeguard the implementation of 35 per cent affirmative action, institutionalise gains made in the peace agreement and ensure incorporation of protections for women’s rights.

South Sudanese women must evaluate their gains so far and fast track their progress. It is crucial to re-strategise beyond political affiliations and collaborate to influence processes more effectively. One method is to capitalise on younger women’s expertise; this can lead to an exchange of generational knowledge and build a critical mass to advocate for women’s inclusion. Robust engagement in civic education and participation is also essential.

Women’s issues should not be kept separate from national-building processes. As stated in Article 16 of the amended Transitional Constitution 2011, women’s participation shall be in public life. Hence their voices should be heard meaningfully, in all decision-making processes.

By doing this, South Sudanese women can seize the ‘Constitutional Moment’ and create a better future for themselves and future generations.

Nobel Women's Initiative

This article is expanded from Catherine's piece titled 'Time to listen' which was shared by the Nobel Women's Initiative at the International Women’s Transformative Leadership Conference in Juba, South Sudan from 13-16 February 2023. Read the original piece on their website.  

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