The Current State of the Women's Movement in South Sudan: An Analysis

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Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa

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Cover artwork: Mugalu Design & Print by: Marce Digital

Published August 2020 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented including copying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Strategic Initiative for women in the Horn of Africa P.O. Box 2793 Kampala – Uganda

ŠSIHA Network 2020

Introduction In 2013, two years after gaining independence, South Sudan confronted divisive violence in its own civil war. The civil war created a highly unstable context in which regional political tensions endured, violence flourished in the absence of sufficient law enforcement/prosecution mechanisms, and resource scarcity, including food insecurity, became characteristic of the young nation. This situation exacerbated the root causes of women’s exclusion from politics and public life as well as their disproportionately high experience of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). As is typical in post-conflict environments in which women have been restricted from employment and public spaces, the women in South Sudan have seen a drastic increase in their responsibilities as bread-winners.1 This increase in responsibility has not been matched with proportionate improvements in social status and legal rights. Although the Transitional Constitution states that women should be accorded full and equal dignity, and despite the fact that recent progress has been made on this front with the new peace deal, there is still limited inclusion of women, and systemic impunity for human rights violations persists. This report, based on research conducted in Juba and Wau in December 2019, seeks to obtain a holistic understanding of the women’s movement in South Sudan, taking into consideration the historical, social, cultural and political context of the country. It briefly traces the historical trajectory of the women’s movement in the country, including a description of the various actors, their mandates, and the collective influence of the movement. The report describes the issues/goals that have brought women’s organizations and their allies together and the nature of their engagement with national, regional and international mechanisms and networks. While this research documents the achievements and strengths of the women’s movement as a collective, it also identifies the various challenges, gaps and potential divisions within it. The study places particular emphasis on the work of the women’s movement and relevant civil society organizations in the areas of women, peace and security, and sexual and gender-based violence. The intended outcome of this research is to identify strategies for the women’s movement to attain greater access to decision-making processes during the transitional period and beyond. The study makes specific recommendations in this regard. Although focusing particularly on the status and situation of women, the study methodology extends critiques of the women’s movement in relation to society as a whole, and reinstates a gendered focus on the politics of everyday life. As such, the analysis examined the structures, conditions and institutions that govern the lives of women. It focused on how these structures and conditions affect the ability of women to organize within movements, and in turn, how women’s organizing is affecting the social and political outcomes for women in South Sudan. The study was not a micro-study of households, but rather of the individual and collective actions of women within women’s organizations (grassroots and Oxfam (2017), “South Sudan Gender Analysis: A snapshot situation analysis of the differential impact of the humanitarian crisis on women, girls, men and boys in South Sudan, March–July 2016. Available at: 1

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national) in response to key gender-related issues emerging out of society. Structures here refer to the social and cultural frameworks that govern the lives of women, and include patriarchal structures, harmful traditional practices, the funding environment, and the broader civil society. Conditions refer to factors that enable and/or constrain women’s work within or outside of their movements. These conditions might include poverty, violence, insecurity, hunger, elitism, and inequality among others. Institutions refer to the formal and informal platforms through and within which women seek to gain recognition and access to the state and its resources. Formal institutions include the law/justice system, police/administrative system, healthcare, education, and traditional institutions. An evaluation of the women’s movement in relation to these three pillars is useful in showing the structural dynamics of the women’s movement, including the opportunities and limitations that might be present in trying to respond to the issues of women in the transitional period. The research involved the use of primary and secondary sources to obtain a clear understanding of the situation of the women’s movement and relevant CSOs in South Sudan. A desk review of relevant literature was followed by qualitative field research. The researcher conducted twenty (20) in-depth semi-structured interviews with key members of the women’s movement, of relevant CSOs, and of international organizations working on gender and women’s issues.

Context: The women’s movement in historical perspective The engagement of South Sudanese women in movements—networks of women working together to influence or bring about societal change— is largely influenced by two factors: first, the Sudanese Civil Wars and the struggle of Southerners against discrimination and marginalization by the Khartoum government which spurred numerous group initiatives among Southerners; and, second, by the influence of churches and church associations which allowed South Sudanese women to form civil society groups albeit largely connected to the agenda of churches. The history of South Sudanese women’s activism has consistently been subsumed under a generalized history of the Sudanese women’s movement encompassing what is now Sudan and South Sudan. Hale (2001), for instance, argues that the expression “the Sudanese women’s movement” has been considered as code for the Sudanese Women’s Union (WU), a wing of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP). Most writing on the subject has been skewed towards northern Sudan (now Sudan) and has combined most women’s activism under the WU. For example, the Union of Sudanese Women falls under the Sudan Socialist Union (SSU) of the Nimeiri

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regime.2 Hale attempts to categorize women’s activism in Sudan into three broad types of movements, mobilizations or associations. •

Represented by the secular left and consisting of the WU, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), and the Sudanese Women’s Rights Organization, one of the splinter groups that broke away from the WU

The cultural nationalists/regionalists, including among others, the women’s wings of the Umma Party, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Islamist women of the National Islamic Front (NIF), and scattered Christian groups

Grassroots activists, including some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working both inside Sudan (and South Sudan) and in exile/diaspora.3

Others write of an “emerging southern [Sudanese] feminism (1990-2005) of the SPLM and other southern or Nubian groups” whose agenda has been distinct from the Islamist vs. secularist debate that has preoccupied northern (Sudan) feminists.4 This view, however, considers the South Sudanese feminist debate “less complicated” and narrows it down to – the struggle to overcome a patriarchal traditional system to gain emancipation from African tradition and move toward a secular law along international principles of human rights and women’s conferences plans of action.5 A parallel history highlights women’s organizing and participation in the war effort through women’s battalions and as camp followers.6 The creation of the SPLA’s Girls’ Battalion (Ketiba Banat) was intended by John Garang to create a space for women in South Sudanese history but, not just any women. The vast majority of these women were Dinka and were educated. At the time, humanitarian agencies commonly estimated that 90% of Southern Sudanese women were illiterate. As such, the fact that these girls and women of SPLA’s Girls’ Battalion were educated and had left their villages for formal schooling in towns was already a transgression of traditional gender norms. The composition of Ketiba Banat was thus, not representative of the profiles of most women involved in war-related activities in South Sudan.7 Highlighting women’s active participation in the war and officially recognizing wartime heroism has political significance. It may also aid in women’s political mobility, and serve as an important factor for the rise of women to future positions of power.8 As findings from this study show, this is a factor in the

Sondra Hale (2001), “Testimonies in Exile: Sudanese Gender Politics,” Northeast African Studies, 8(2): 83-128, p.83.


3Ibid, 83-84. 4Balghis Badri, “Feminist Perspectives in the Sudan: An analytical overview,” paper presented on the workshop “Feminist Perspectives”, Free University Berlin, 26-27 May 2005, 16. 5Ibid. 6Clémence Pinaud (2013), “Are “Griefs of More Value than Triumphs”? Power Relations, Nation-Building, and the Different Histories of Women’s Wartime Contributions in Postwar South Sudan,” Northeast African Studies, 13(2): 151-176. Pinaud disputes claims that the SPLA trained women militarily (via the creation of the SPLA’s ‘Girls’ Battalion’), arguing that those female battalions rumoured to have existed were merely women’s associations, camp followers and refugees, and rarely participated in direct combat (in contrast to women in the Eritrean EPLF). The SPLA also integrated them into its ruling elite, mostly through marriage. 7Ibid, 154-5 8Ibid, 153-4.

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leadership of women’s organizations in South Sudan, where women leaders partly instill loyalty and social power on the basis of their struggle credentials. Finally, there is a long history of South Sudanese women’s social and political organizing that highlights the contributions of individual, influential women who emerged as leaders in matters of politics, education, trade, and traditional leadership.9 The church is also central to understanding the women’s movement in South Sudan. The broadly ecumenical Christian church figured prominently in the liberation struggles in South Sudan. During 22 years of civil war, the church was one of the few institutions that remained constant and functioning. Certainly there was no operating government at the time, no UN and no secular NGOs. Youthful soldiers even eroded the authority of the local chiefs. The church provided services that included health care, education, emergency relief, food, shelter, and security/protection. All of these services responded to the needs of families and households; and, therefore, brought women in direct contact with the church. As a result of this assistance, the church gained a remarkable degree of credibility and moral authority.10 Women, through the church, were involved in peace-building efforts during the war years. For instance, women working together in the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) conducted their own version of shuttle diplomacy. In February 1999, they organized the Wunlit Peace Summit to bring an end to bloody hostilities between the Dinka and Nuer communities. As a result, the Wunlit Covenant guaranteed peace between the two communities, which were then able to agree to share rights to water, fishing, and grazing land. The Covenant also returned prisoners and guaranteed the freedom of movement of members of both tribes.11 Churches provided a structural basis and organizational feature that was deeply embedded in the local communities which meant that churches tended to occupy more space in peace processes and were able to do so because they were fully embedded in local communities. From churches and mosques in the smallest villages to cathedrals in many of the larger cities, religious actors had legitimacy and access at the grassroots level and generations of presence in South Sudan. Religious actors were present at all major life events from birth to death, and interacted with a sizable percentage of school children throughout their education. Churches and religious actors also worked closely with faith-based institutions such as Catholic Relief Services, Norwegian Church Aid, and World Vision International, all of which provided humanitarian aid across the country, including in the most volatile and fragile conflict zones. Due to the nature of its humanitarian services and responses to the reproductive needs of communities, the church was an important space for women’s engagement on social and humanitarian issues and collective action and organizing throughout the course of the war.12 However, despite the 9Here the influence of pioneering women might be noted. For instance, Victoria Yar Arol who was a born in 1948 was the first woman from South Sudan to study at the University of Khartoum, where she read economics and political science. She became a member of the African Nationalist Front and later helped form the Sudanese Women’s Union. She represented women at the National People’s Assembly and won a seat on the People’s Regional Assembly in Bahr el Ghazal Province. She also served as chair of the anti-corruption committee (http://www. John Ashworth and Maura Ryan (2013), ‘“One Nation from Every Tribe, Tongue, and People”: The Church and Strategic Peacebuilding in South Sudan, Journal of Catholic Social Thought, 10(1): 47-67. 10

Swanee Hunt and Cristina Posa (2001), “Women Waging Peace,” Foreign Policy, 124: 38-47, p.41


Jacqueline Wilson (2019), “The Religious Landscape in South Sudan: Challenges and Opportunities for Engagement,” available online at: default/files/2019-07/pw_148-the_religious_landscape_in_south_sudan_challenges_and_opportunities_for_engagement.pdf, 27. 12

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space available to women within the church networks and actions, the inherent patriarchal organization and conservative nature of the church structures has meant that while the church occupies significant social space in South Sudan, it has not provided the opportunity for women within its scope to become significant political players. In contrast, the developing secular civic space in South Sudan has had a bigger nurturing role for women’s participation in politics and peace processes. The structure of secular civil society in South Sudan is therefore key to understanding the women’s movement. Over the last couple of decades, as South Sudanese civil society, including the emergence of women’s organisations and activists, has begun to develop, it has been dependent on foreign donors for support. As a nascent sector, the level of organization and capacity of organizations has been limited and this has contributed to the inability of CSOs and NGOs to identify independent agendas based on the interests of South Sudanese citizens. The tendency of external actors such as the Troika – USA, Britain, and Norway – to impose their governance and development templates on South Sudan has, at times, constrained the implementation of local peace-building models and priorities, and contributed to narrowing the space for South Sudanese civil society to effect change in the country through its own indigenous solutions. Meanwhile, competition for donor resources and the attendant imperative to remain relevant has tended to undermine collaboration among civil society organizations, while encouraging a hostile relationship between civil society and the state.13 Within this competitive environment, organisations dedicated to women’s issues and gender equality are particularly constrained as they compete not only with other women’s organisations for the limited funding directed at women’s issues, but also with organisations that have broader mandates and which have access to a wider range of funds. The effectiveness of South Sudanese civil society has also been hindered by the highly polarised and militarised nature of the country’s politics. Following the country’s independence in 2011, the SPLM/ A’s process of transforming the institutions of the liberation struggle has faced numerous challenges. The army and national security system in South Sudan underpins governance, with militarism rendered more severe by the conflict and by the further proliferation of small arms since December 2013. At the same time, both the government and the opposition have sought to co-opt, and sometimes to infiltrate NGOs. This was evident during the political negotiations of the August 2015 peace accord. This situation has given civil society in South Sudan a partisan character, which has sometimes contributed to undermining its legitimacy and credibility in the country. Of equal concern is the top-down militaristic culture that pervades politics in South Sudan. Former military officers and rebel leaders, whose values are often averse to political accountability, are frequently appointed to positions of responsibility in the government. Governing authorities have also sought to tightly regulate the work of civil society organizations, often through legislation. This has reduced the space for genuine dialogue between the state and civil society and instead promoted division and suspicion between government and civil society actors. Thus, civil society activists are often portrayed as threats and have at times become victims of


Kudrat Virk and Fritz Nganje (2016), “The Role of Civil Society in South Sudan: Challenges and Opportunities,” report by the Centre for Conflict Resolution, 10.

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government harassment.14 In the particular case of women’s rights organisations, documentation and reporting on the abuses and rampant sexual violence perpetrated by state and opposition forces is often denied outright by the government, thereby attempting to characterise these organisations as subversive and alienating them politically. On the other hand, political milestones in the country have also impacted civil society and the women’s movement within that space. The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005 between the Government of Sudan and SPLM, ended the 21-year civil war, set the stage for a return to multiparty elections, and provided distinct opportunities for South Sudanese women’s engagement and participation in politics, the peace process, and negotiations leading up to the 2011 secession. The CPA opened up space for the mobilization of women’s movements, but was equally conducive for the growth of movements and actors opposed to gender equality.15 Among the issues unifying the women’s movement was the issue of quotas. Although Southern Sudanese women obtained a 25% women’s quota already in 2005 as stipulated in the South Sudan Interim Constitution, they supported the national quota at the same time as the SPLM was preparing for the referendum in January 2011 and later secession in July 2011. At present, the quota debate is once again on the agenda of the South Sudan women’s movement with a demand for 35% of executive appointments to women, as stated in the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) that was signed on September 12, 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.16 This quota debate is, however, a discussion mainly taking place among elite women and the women’s leadership. It is concerned with greater representation of women in already established structures of governance, and not so much with building new structures and movements from below. Furthermore, while there was a noted improvement by the time the R-ARCSS process took place, the previous 25% quota was never met in the ARCSS and the 35% has not been attained in most of the R-ARCSS implementation bodies and commissions. Insecurity, threats and intimidation, as well as limited access to funding and resources remain barriers to gender equality.17 In addition and as detailed below, women’s organizations and movements are involved in other more grounded debates and struggles which are more representative of the popular and broad concerns of the urban and rural masses of labouring women.




Tønnessen, Liv and Samia al-Nagar (2013), “The Women’s Quota in Conflict Ridden Sudan,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 41(2): 122-131).

The peace deal is an attempt to revive the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) of 17 August 2015 (which itself had temporarily ended the first civil war of South Sudan that broke out on 13 December 2013), that had apparently broken down as a result of the outbreak of civil war triggered by the violent confrontations that erupted on the night of 7 July 2016 in Juba. For details on the R-ARCSS, see: reviving-peace-in-south-sudan-through-the-revitalised-peace-agreement/ 16


Soma, Esther (2019), “Women in South Sudan’s Peace Processes,” Oxfam/UN Women Report, p.6

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Key/emerging issues of the women’s movement There are a number of issues emerging from within the women’s movements and organizations, and which relate directly or indirectly to their work in peace and security. Issues include economic empowerment and livelihoods, education, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health rights, and political participation. These emerging issues are reviewed under various conceptual categories of analysis as seen from the field interviews conducted in Juba and Wau.

The transition period The transition period that led to the recent formation of the Revitalized Unity Government on February 22, 2020 through the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan was a significant point of concern and discussion among South Sudanese women. The issues highlighted during the interviews place the unity government into the broader perspective of women’s rights, especially by providing a benchmark upon which the women’s relationship with the state may be evaluated. Women made reference to the transition period as a significant benchmark for underlining priority areas and the direction of their activities, and also in terms of their expectations in relation to the state. The fact that there has been continuing instability since secession and the government has been unable to deliver on its mandate has certainly raised a lot of skepticism about what the current transition period will deliver. Most future plans elaborated by women’s organizations are punctuated by the “if” question, and there is a prevailing waitand-see attitude. The attention obviously now shifts to the ability of the unity government to deliver on the promises made to women,18 and to the extent to which it incorporates women and their concerns into the new government. Women also demonstrated significant interest and awareness of the political events taking place in South Sudan that are highlighted in the transition period. This political awareness and deep interest shown by women with regards to every stage of the political negotiations is indicative of women’s concern with the relationship between politics and women’s liberation, and the extent to which women’s movement work is aligned and influenced by political changes. The main issues which women associate with the current political dynamic include (in)security and the ability of women to access remote or hostile parts of the country; social and political stability,

According to Article 1.4.4. of the R-ARCSS, the Parties are required to observe the 35% women representation in their nominations to the Executive, by ensuring that ITGoNU nominates no fewer than six (6) women, SPLM/A-IO nominates no fewer than three (3) women, and SSOA nominates no less than one (1) woman. Concerning the nomination of the ten deputy ministers, Article 1.12.5 requires that no fewer than three (3) of them must be women. However, women only received 26% representation in the Council of Ministers and 10% within the deputy ministers. Furthermore, Article of the R-ARCSS requires parties to ffer special consideration to conflict-affected persons (children, orphans, women, widows, war wounded, people with special needs, etc.), in the provision of public services delivery including access to health and education services and grant the host communities the same benefit, protection and humanitarian services. Article provides for the establishment of a Women Enterprise Development Fund for provision of subsidized credit for women-based enterprise development and capacity building of women entrepreneurs to be implemented within the first 12 months of the transition. See RJMEC (2020), “Report on the Status of Implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan for the Period 1st January to 31st March 2020). 18

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especially the longevity of peace and women’s ability to plan activities in the long term; ongoing processes of disarmament and the cantonment of former soldiers who are major perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence and other forms of torture; and the prospects of women’s substantive participation in politics, a discussion that is now largely dominated by the debate on a 35% quota representation of women at all levels of government. The majority of women leaders (political, activists and NGO campaigners) interviewed, placed a lot of emphasis on the quota debate. Discussions on women’s political participation are mainly centered on the 35% quota, which was agreed upon in the transition documents. Women have adopted a number of strategies for pursuing this agenda, including meeting with state officials such as governors, to discuss their positions and extract assurances. The main concern for women seems to be not as much about handing out political positions to females as it is about improving the education and skills of women or enhancing women’s capacity to hold these positions. However, a major weakness identified with the approach so far adopted by women leaders, is that it risks pushing for the appointment of women without broad consultations with grassroots women.19 The major litmus test of the outcomes of these campaigns will be seen after 3 years when elections and constitutional amendments are due. At that time and as per the Agreement, affirmative action will no longer be available and women will need to contest elections. For now, the challenge is to ensure that every party to the Agreement allocates 35% of positions to women.20 The ability of the women’s movement to incorporate the issues and priorities of South Sudanese women across the country is threatened by the largely exclusionary and elite tendency in the women’s movement in South Sudan. The dynamics of elitism are evident in the kinds of women who are at the forefront of the movement. These women are mainly educated, with ‘struggle credentials’, or they gain access to formal government positions through patriarchal relations with male family members in power. These elite dynamics have significant implications for ongoing peace processes. Do the concessions that women derive from the state reflect the communities or just the elite pacts? Women, through various collective initiatives (e.g. the Women’s Monthly Forum) have actively participated in the peace process and various agreements, and expect in turn, to be effectively included in the new political formation. Such inclusion, however, is more guaranteed for elite women than grassroots and rural women and therefore, less likely to reflect the popular concerns of all women. The lack of prioritization of women by major players in the transition process was also highlighted. Women cite conflicting mandates of peace implementing bodies. For instance, UNMISS has no clear mandate with respect to women and in fact, their mandate is dictated by the prevailing political situation.21 Therefore, there is not always alignment between issues 19

Interview 1 - 11 December 2019 - Wau.




Interview 2 – 13 January 2019 – Juba

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being prioritized by women and those prioritized by the UNMISS Gender Unit. The UNMISS Gender Unit is mandated with mainstreaming gender, as well as women, peace & security (WPS). The four WPS pillars are: protection of women and girls, prevention of GBV, (political) participation of women, and relief & recovery.22 On the other hand, the mandate of UNMISS focuses on the protection of civilians, human rights monitoring and investigation, support of peace agreement/implementation of agreement, and gender mainstreaming. In this regard, the parent unit and the gender unit within it have mandates that can potentially be in conflict as the prevention of GBV and protection of women may be undermined by the broad umbrella of ‘protection of civilians’, which also includes the protection of those perpetrating violence against women and girls.

Access to justice There is a widespread commitment among women’s rights and human rights organizations to the documentation of human rights violations. Indeed, one of the major activities being undertaken by rights organizations at present, and which is related to improving access to justice, involves the documentation of sexual and gender-based violence. This is a priority area for many human/women’s rights organizations given the high rates of gendered violence in South Sudan. However, the current risky political environment in which human right defenders are increasingly being targeted for harassment, arrest and state surveillance as detailed in the section below, hampers this evidence-based approach. This push for evidence-based advocacy is geared toward the formal, state, and institutional recognition of gendered crimes and violence against women. The ongoing documentation of GBV targets immediate accountability and also aims to build documentation to support future transitional justice processes provided for in Chapter 5 of the current agreement (R-ARCSS). This means that the possibility exists for women’s organizations to demand redress for the social and political impacts of gender-based violence in the long-term reconstitution of the country. This GBV documentation is furthermore, anchored in the National Action Plan, the UN Resolution 1325 and other international treaties ratified by the government, thus giving formal and juridical recognition to gender violence and legitimate grounds for women’s rights campaigns for justice. The role of paralegals in filling gaps in the justice system and accessing remote corners of the country is increasingly recognized and being supported by women’s rights and human rights organizations, especially given the lack of statutory courts in many rural or semi-urban communities. Paralegal outreach has been challenged in South Sudan due to the lack of a legal framework that recognizes paralegals. As such, their roles and functions are being written into



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legislation such as the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Bill and Legal Aid Act that are currently being pushed in parliament by women lawyers.23 One significant impact of such bills would be to authorize the provision of support for paralegals that is required to extend the reach of legal aid to survivors of GBV. Currently, a formal network of paralegal support does not yet exist in South Sudan. Strengthening the support for paralegals is viewed as an essential step to providing access to justice for a majority of women who cannot get to courts of law. The idea of participatory justice, which ranges from individual procedural fairness rights to collective citizenship-based models, is increasingly being considered as a mechanism in social rights adjudication in South Sudan. Participatory justice is viewed as promoting new forms of conflict resolution based on voluntariness and confidentiality, as well as the participation of all parties in the management of conflict (a model of arbitration-mediation). It comes in the wake of a trend toward community forums on transitional justice that aim to gather popular views and people’s expectations of the transitional justice process, including views regarding the government’s progress on issues of peace during the transition. Women’s access and prioritization of gender issues in such forums, however, is still low and structured by restrictive traditional norms. A primary focus for women activists as such, is how to make these spaces of participatory justice more inclusive for women. Conversations with young human/women’s rights activists highlighted varying intergenerational perspectives on questions of justice. Some young people/youth activists are more idealistic in their approach to certain issues to which the older generation of women acknowledge but take a more conservative approach. For instance, some young activists are more amenable to the dual legal system that incorporates both formal and informal approaches to justice. On the other hand, more established women’s rights activists tend towards formal/statutory mechanisms for the protection of women and girls, and stress the incompatibility between customary law and statutory law, which they blame for enabling the perpetuation of harmful traditional practices. Younger activists view this tension as potentially surmountable through education and awareness-raising activities, and more importantly, see themselves as playing a role in creating this type of awareness in the communities.

Scrutiny, personal security and silencing of women’s voices One major challenge faced by the women’s movement is the fear of harassment and security risks that could result from vocal activism. The prevailing, tense, transitional political environment has produced a surveillance state in which state security agents use various forms of censorship on women’s rights activists. Activists also censor themselves (self-censorship) due to fear of persecution. As a result of this censorship, women have feared speaking out about topics


Interview 3 – 5 December 2019 – Juba.

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considered sensitive or too political, or they have been forced to couch their language in ways that sometimes blunt their message. There is a sense among women that the security forces of the state are silencing their individual voices and the voice of the women’s movement as a whole. The result of self-censorship and the reluctance to speak freely and critically about political issues is the risk of a depoliticization of the women’s movement. The other roadblock being placed in the way of women’s rights activism and movement building is the denial of spaces for organizing. Women have great difficulty getting official permission to hold meetings, especially large public gatherings. Also, there is extreme scrutiny and shaming of women activists and leaders. According to one of the women interviewed, this suppression is partly driven by myths of women political activists as ‘dangerous women’. “Women have influence, they know that women have been empowered, they know women are aware of the bad things happening and they don’t want women to air them.”24 The result of this shrinking of civic spaces for women’s organizing has the ironic effect of favouring the position of a few powerful women who are well connected and able to get the necessary permits and assert themselves as leaders of the women’s movement. Meanwhile, some voices of committed activists who do not enjoy the benefit of connections or a protective reputation, are silenced. Because of the surveillance especially on women’s rights and human rights organizations, some organizations are resorting to security measures that might eventually affect their autonomy. Digital security precautions force these organizations to rely on external groups for data protection as well as advice and support with regard to digital security initiatives. This clearly constrains the ability of these women’s rights and human rights organizations to operate freely and independently. It also impacts their ease of operations, because digital security precautions make their work more cumbersome and slow. One example of the ways in which organizational and security risks are affecting the autonomy of some organizations relates to the preservation of (sexual violence) victims’ data. This data, especially when the case is still in litigation, is considered to be very sensitive and is a high-risk issue for the organizations working on the litigation. A legal justice organization (FIDA) has, for instance, been compelled to invest in complex digital security measures that include storing data remotely, and destroying all hard copies of evidence/depositions from survivors.

Economic empowerment Women’s economic empowerment is a major focus and concern for women’s organizations in South Sudan, and there are a number of initiatives through which this objective is being pursued. Firstly, women are organizing through women’s networks. Savings and credit schemes (SACCOs) are a central vehicle bridging livelihood gaps for women. SACCOs allow access


Interview 4 – 5 December 2019 – Juba

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to financial resources and other types of assistance such as education, emergency support and school fees for girls whose mothers are SACCO members. The membership base of current SACCOs is, however, very small and dependent on access to existing women’s networks. In this regard, most of the women members accessing credit are already involved in petty commodity trade and trading in the informal sector. Through the SACCO model, women are working with men, albeit only a small percentage of men - about 2% and mostly widowers. These men are able to access credit through women-led SACCOs. Financing given to men is mainly for educational loans, although a few men take out business loans. Economic empowerment activities are greatly affected by the political insecurity prevailing in certain areas especially outside of major towns such as Juba and Wau. Some of the women traders have to travel fairly long distances for raw materials and products for their trade. For instance, small cottage industries such as honey and shea butter whose raw materials have to be sourced from the forests are highly affected because women’s security cannot be guaranteed. These examples highlight the link between peace and security, gendered violence, and women’s economic empowerment. They also suggest the need for programmatic responses that are based on more structural analyses that show the interdependence between these factors. Through the prevalence of negative gender stereotypes attached to some forms of work, the conditions under which women work are also further restricted and made more dangerous. For instance, we were told of the experiences of businesswomen and traders, especially those involved in cross-border trade, who are frequently labelled as ‘prostitutes’ due to the high mobility that their work entails. These women are shamed or even ostracized from their communities. These prevailing societal perceptions deepen women’s sense of personal insecurity and render some women reluctant to engage in certain trades even when opportunities are available. While it is clear that economic empowerment programmes should account for these indirect consequences of women’s work and seek to build concrete responses around them, the existing programmes reviewed are not addressing these issues, although they have knowledge of their occurrence. The issue of economic empowerment is a unifying thematic area that brings (ethnically, regionally, age) diverse groups of women together toward a shared purpose. Economic empowerment activities have been an avenue through which women build alliances and bridge ethnic differences. For instance, in Lake State (Aweil), the South Sudan Women Empowerment Network (SSWEN) supports about 105 groups of women who are working in agriculture, embroidery, and tailoring. The groups are formed by GBV survivors from both the host and IDP communities, and include both older and younger women. Their unifying message is that the issues that women face do not discriminate and affect all women.25 Another example is The Roots Project in Juba, which has built a community of women crafts-makers from different ethnic groups who produce jewelry and other artifacts for sale. The project has also created a


Interview 5 – 9 December 2019 – Juba

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safe-space for women to share their experiences of SGBV and other hardships, although this aspect is not a deliberate focus of the project. There are a few attempts towards decentralization of economic empowerment activities. For instance, organizations such as SSWEN have introduced Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLA) whose aim is to pool available resources and support women in maintaining savings on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Out of this pool, members can apply for small loans depending on needs and proportion of their savings. This model of women pooling together their resources has the effect of deepening their agency as women. As one interviewee put it, this is one area that “helps women identify themselves as women.”26 This point may be taken to mean that women see their struggles as similar, and they build stronger solidarities on this basis. The VSLAs are, however, not yet widespread enough to constitute a strong pillar of movement building. One of the most inspiring illustrations of movement building in South Sudan emerged from the organic struggles of women. There are powerful struggles being led by grassroots women, through which they have been able to claim their user rights to resources, and in the process, are challenging established power networks and authority, and strengthening women both economically and politically. These struggles, such as the example below of women’s mobilization around land in Wau, represent probably one of the most powerful indicators of what women’s collective action/movements can achieve when they have clear objectives. Case Study: Wau Women Association (WWA) - Empowerment through land struggles1 In 2018, a group of widows in Wau went to the governor to ask for land, which the governor agreed to give them. The distribution of the land was to be witnessed by the woman leader who had negotiated the agreement. Previously, only men were able to own land and women could not. The group of widows was granted land but a problem remained because they did not have money to process transfer papers. The Chief was supposed to handle the transfer paperwork but the women soon discovered that the Chief had, in fact, sold their land and was stealing from them. The Chief, the widows realized, was working in cahoots with officials in the Ministry of Land. The Chief then demanded an office out of which he could operate in order to resolve the women’s issue. The women decided to raise money for this purpose. They raised SP 80,000, and gave the Chief SP 18,000 so that he could rent office space. The ministry then sent a committee to assess the situation, and for that visit, the women raised money and hired chairs and bought refreshments. About 200 women gathered for the committee meeting. The women sat to the side and the men sat with the Chief, with whom the men had been agreeing. The women spoke in one voice and declared that they did not want the Chief. The committee called for the election of a new Chief. In this regard, the women “raised their voices” and won.2. They are now collecting money again and want the new chief to be permanent as he supports the women-land agenda. After this victory, women now own land, which



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can no longer be grabbed away from them. The land case strengthened the women’s position in their households as men realized that the women were strong. It also strengthened the relationship between the women’s movement and the state. Women now go immediately to the government if there is any issue. The women now see that the government played a role in eliminating the old Chief and appointing a new one, and that the action was immediate. The positive outcome of this land case occurred because the “women stood with one voice,” and they were able to transcend ethnic differences. The women who led this land case emerged as leaders and continue to be approached by the women in the community whenever they face problems. In general, it remains extremely difficult to reach out and communicate effectively with women in rural areas with the result that most women in villages do not know what women in towns are doing.3

Scarcity of funding/resources, and rivalry within the movement The women’s movement in South Sudan is facing significant challenges related to the current funding environment and de-prioritization of certain programmes, especially those related to economic and social rights. The funding constraints noted are such that due to scarcity of donor funding, attention is being redirected from livelihoods, economic rights and economic empowerment issues toward humanitarian responses as the programmatic focus of donors shifted from state-building to peace-building. This is a source of serious concern among women’s organizations, especially those working at the grassroots level and those that are concerned with the social reproduction of families, households and communities. One of the major effects of this de-funding is the absence of an inclusive agenda among women. This may ultimately lead to fragmentations within the women’s movement. Rivalry and competition are sowing seeds of distrust among women and creating distance between them. There are stories of betrayal and of women undermining one another. Women’s organizations are deciding not to work with one another, even when they fall under the same umbrella institution such as the Women’s Union (WU). Women express views that denote the lack of coordination and communication that exists. “Other women’s organizations are doing a lot of work in the name of the Women’s Union. We have a problem as women. One will do something on behalf of the owner and will not even inform you that they are doing it.”27 Related to the above is the idea that there is donor complicity in sowing distrust among women and colleagues in the women’s movement. There have been accusations that some individuals and organizations have “hijacked” the work promised to another and that donor organizations are complicit in undermining women’s unity when they shift funding from one to another or when women are recruited into organisations. At the same time, the NGOization of the women’s


Interview 7 – 9 December 2019 – Juba

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movement has meant that donors focus on funding projects that may not engender feminist consciousness and may conceal a regime change agenda. There is also the perception that as politically active women are appointed or offered positions in government or in political parties that these women become compromised and are no longer vocal against violations or state-sanctioned oppression. This ultimately serves to weaken the women’s movement and highlights the lack of linkages between women leaders and a broad base of women constituents. The resource question also has implications for generational transition. From the interviews, it has been expressed that there is a lack of new ideas in the women’s movement. This appears to be due to a lack of mentorship or a sharing of ideas among women and to the dominance of an ‘old guard’ of women leaders with few substantive transitions in leadership from the older to the younger generation of women activists. The issue of seniority versus youth also plays into the dynamics of the women’s movement. Prioritization of issues sometimes depends more on the inclinations of older women activists rather than the needs at the grassroots level. The issue of limited resources for civil society is also resulting in hierarchical tensions that can affect the implementation of the women’s agenda. For instance, tensions exist between the role of the Ministry of Gender and women’s organizations. According to the Director General of the Ministry, “Organizations are not the ones to resolve all the issues of women; that is the work of the ministry. Short term projects and workshops cannot change the situation, partly because organizations are working with limited resources and terms.”28 Ultimately, the effect of the NGOization of women’s political movements and competition over resources is resulting in a narrow agenda for the women’s movement in South Sudan. The study found, for instance, that most women’s organizations are focusing on peace and security, as this is currently the most ‘marketable’ and is receiving significant donor funding. Other issues such as VAW, sexual and reproductive health rights and economic empowerment have been sidelined due to the difficult funding environment and their general de-prioritization. It appears too, that the focus is on addressing causal factors, and in this regard, SGBV is seen as an effect rather than a cause and is thus left to women to address. The narrow agenda reflects the failure of women’s organizations to broaden their agenda and to present SGBV as both a cause of insecurity (e.g. the use of rape as a weapon of war), and an effect of conflict. Furthermore, because of the ‘crowding’ around a few issues, there is significant competition for funding and this is causing distrust and a lack of unity among women. Presently, most women’s organizations are working with a short-term agenda. Because of the funding squeeze, there is greater focus on operational issues and not on the sustainability of projects. This raises important questions for movement building, especially in relation to the


Interview 1 - 11 December 2019 - Wau.

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fact that South Sudanese women have historically mobilized or come together around issues. Therefore, the question is, how to retain momentum from issue-driven mobilizing and direct it towards consolidating the women’s movement.

Rural-urban divide and lack of access to remote areas The conflict and insecurity in South Sudan has direct and indirect impacts on women’s work, and on the ability for women to organize collectively around shared objectives, this is mainly due to the presence of insecurity that affects inter-state mobility. Before the renewed outbreak of conflict in 2013, women’s organizations like the South Sudan Women Empowerment Network (SSWEN), worked with traders, networked, and organized exchange visits for women to see other women’s work. This is no longer possible due to increased insecurity, risk of violence and other risks associated with travel across the states. In addition, limited infrastructure, limited mobile and internet connectivity in rural areas, and the increased challenges of working across ethnic lines since 2013 also play a part in hindering the cohesion between rural and urban movements. The NGOization of the women’s movement and the influence of donors on the trajectory and priorities of women’s organizations have also had a hand to play in the disarticulation between rural and urban movements of women. The shift in donor priorities in response to the political situation – a shift of donor funding from state-building in the immediate postsecession period, to the current focus on humanitarian support – has meant that the priorities of women’s organizations have shifted in response. No longer focused on building political and social movements, some women’s organizations no longer maintain offices outside of central Equatoria. The shift in donor priorities has also dictated the long-term sustainability of projects. Currently, funds are shifting from women’s economic empowerment rights toward security and protection of civilians. Related to the previous point is a clear urban bias in the prioritization of programmes, physical location of offices, and nature of issues being addressed by women’s organizations. There is also a distinct lack of access to training and awareness for rural women. Most rural women are easily dispossessed of land and wealth and do not know their rights. Distance affects the ability of urban-based organizations to train and include women who live in villages. The work of most of the women’s organizations is focused on issues emerging from their urban constituencies.

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Customary/traditional limitations on the protection of women and girls SIHA’s detailed study Falling through the Cracks29 provided some important insights into the adverse ways in which women’s engagement with customary and statutory systems affects them, and which are still relevant to date. The report argued against the relativist emphasis on cultural specificity as a strictly community or society-based concern, and instead focused on the narratives of women in South Sudan who have been victimized through repression under customary law systems. The report challenged the popular notion that customary law should be empowered as a tool for conflict resolution, which without strong rule of law behind it, can become dysfunctional, leading to massive conflict within and between communities. It showed that the use of customary legal frameworks without due consideration for the consequences of their application, as well as the basic capacity of traditional institutions, had resulted in women being held hostage to the bride-price system. The bride price as a system itself is often manipulated and adjusted by certain stakeholders and actors within the community, made worse by the deprivation and poverty in the country. The report found that the use of customary law systems had led to the dehumanization and detainment of women, and that women and girls were at the frontline of the contradictory encounter between custom and prevailing authority.30 The report also dealt, among other issues, with the normalization of domestic violence; the lack of justice in adjudicating rape through customary courts; the effects of the lack of systematization between customary and statutory courts; and what it means to creatively engage customary authorities such as chiefs.31 The present study highlighted a number of these issues, which is evidence that they persist and remain problematic. Firstly, there seems to be a disconnect/conflict between the UN’s official mandate on the protection of civilians (POC), its unofficial approach of non-interference, and prevailing cultural practices in some communities whereby rape is considered as a taboo subject and remains unreported or significantly under-reported due to fears around family honor and the marriageability of rape survivors.32 Women’s organizations are caught in the middle of this tension. Their responses to GBV may be legitimized and supported by the UN and other funding organizations, but due to the sanctioning of traditional authorities that have legitimacy within the POC framework, implementation at the community level may be hampered. Secondly, South Sudan does not have a specific GBV law yet, but the penal code criminalizes various forms of GBV. Domestic violence is an offense that can carry a sentence of between one to seven years and a fine, depending on the severity of the attack. Rape and statutory rape


SIHA (2012), Falling through the Cracks: Reflections on Customary Law and the Imprisonment of Women in South Sudan, Kampala: SIHA Network.






Interview 5 – 9 December 2019 – Juba

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carry a prison sentence of up to fourteen years; however, it is important to note that marital rape is not considered a crime. Moreover, if a married woman reports being raped by someone other than her husband, she faces the possibility of being detained for adultery under the current legal framework. Women, however, are often silent about and rarely report incidents of violence, especially sexual violence, because of the stigma that survivors of sexual violence face. When women report sexual violence, they often first approach traditional judicial structures, which favour negotiated and restorative settlement rather than punitive action. According to customary law, a girl who is raped should then marry the perpetrator. This keeps her respectability intact while the bride wealth provides redress to her family. Because the police and the justice system are ill-equipped to meet community needs and because of the rigid legal framework, recent research indicates that women and their families continue to use the customary justice system, which consists of chiefs and heads of clans implementing traditional practices to restore justice as defined by communities.33 Thirdly, the SGBV statistics in South Sudan also show that most cases of rape involve underage girls who are controlled by their families and prevented from seeking justice due to stigma and ‘shame’.34 The fact that young girls are being affected in these ways shifts the debate toward who and what should be targeted in campaigns to end sexual violence. Should the protection of girls differ from the protection of women, or at least, include more specific/wider responses regarding the source of girls’ vulnerabilities (e.g. education, poverty)? While the cultural barriers to justice are acknowledged by the organizations, there are no specific policies and programs directed towards addressing them, and especially for addressing the differential ways in which cultural and traditional practices impact women and girls. Finally, the prevalence of rape and other forms of sexual violence continue unabated, especially in cases perpetrated by soldiers, militias and urban youth gangs. Urban youth gangs may be using SGBV “to deal with their own form of victimization as a result of the economy and the conflict.”35 Rape is, however, not an urban phenomenon. Its visibility in urban areas is indicative of a counter-discourse to violence that is based on human rights values. In contrast, the prevalence of rape in rural areas is poorly documented in the absence of a human rights approach. A recent report by SIHA on the root causes of SGBV in South Sudan highlights the question of poverty and economic inequality, the reproductive burden that it places on women and girls, and the violence and exclusion that they suffer as a result.36 This is a systemic approach that illuminates the rights-based approach to SGBV, and compels focus on the relationship between inequality and violence.


Nada Mustafa Ali (2011), “Gender and State Building in South Sudan,” Washington: USIP, 9. See also SIHA, Falling through the Cracks.


Interview 3 – 5 December 2019 – Juba.


SIHA (2019), Caught in the Middle: Gender inequality and rampant SGBV in Wau, South Sudan, Kampala: SIHA Network, 6.



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Political participation and autonomous organizing The effectiveness of women’s participation in politics is presently of major concern in the women’s movement, and party politics is a key point of debate. Women seem to link substantive political power to participation in political parties. There is a strong view among the women leadership that the prescribed (35%) quota will not work in civil society, and that women must join political parties in order to benefit from it. As a result, activism around representation and women’s political participation is overly dominated by the notion of formal representation, with very little focus on possible strategies that would enhance local and grassroots women’s political participation. The question of building a political base from below highlights the ambivalent relationship between political parties vs. women’s movements. That is, the imperative for women to organize for quotas on a party basis has obvious implications for women’s autonomous organizing outside of the state and political party system. Women rightly point out the patriarchal and even sexist nature of party politics, and the narrow party agenda, which may not be gender progressive but rather is concerned with increasing membership and voter base. Furthermore, women who are active in party politics reported facing stigma and marginalization from their communities. For instance, these women are often labelled as prostitutes by their spouses and society. There is an obvious lack of a clear support structure for women once they are in political office.37 At the same time, women reported that even when the women’s movement supported and elected women into political office, these female politicians did not then retain substantive links with the women’s movement once in power.38 Women cited their weak capacity as the reason for their reluctance to enter into politics. Interestingly, many women do not describe women’s movement work and activism as political. Most commentary on politics is directed towards representative politics in relation to the state and not in relation to the women’s movement or society. Most of the women’s organizations and actors interviewed view their lack of capacity, especially lack of education, as a major hindrance to effective political participation.39 However, some have considered the necessity of measuring capacity “not only on the basis of education, but also on the ability to mobilize resources.” Linking a capability for leadership with level of education tends to exclude rural and poor women, who unsurprisingly, are left out of the ongoing discussions concerning the women’s quota (35%).40

A recent study by CEPO, for instance, highlights the fact that the parties’ signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan have women leagues that were intended not to be influential and semi-autonomous. See report at: CEPO (2019), “Report on Political Parties Commitment for Enforcement of 35% Affirmative Action,” available online at: 37


Interview 8 – 9 December 2019 – Juba


Interview 9 – 10 December 2019 – Juba


Interview 5 – 9 December 2019 – Juba

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There is also an ongoing focus on civic education aimed towards raising awareness among women regarding the major issues around which their demands from the state should be framed. Civic education, however, retains a narrow agenda and is underfunded due to shifting donor priorities. After the signing of the CPA in 2005, there was a realization among women’s organizations regarding the importance of bringing all types of women on board, and thus, a focus was placed on raising awareness regarding issues relevant to them. This process of civic education continued during the referendum period in 2011 and in the current transition period, although there is not much resourcing around civic education at the present.41

Generational gap and intergenerational dialogue The intergenerational question is an important one for civil society everywhere and South Sudan is no exception. A primary approach to this has been through mentorship programmes for young people, designed to empower the youth, transfer skills, and bring more young people into social activism. Some of this work of intergenerational mentorship is being undertaken by women’s organizations. In 2018, Eve Organization for Women Development spearheaded a young women’s leadership programme called ‘The Incubator’. Between 2018 and 2019, this programme had about 43-45 members. There are some discernible distinctions between the youth agenda and the women’s movement agenda, which belies the convergence of peace and security issues that face both women and young people, albeit in different ways. For instance, a recent study shows that the inclusion of youth in inter-community dialogues is viewed as necessary “because elders know that if they are not, the youth may disrupt peace efforts through their armed presence in cattle camps. Chiefs and local authority elders/leaders make most decisions. Thus, while the youth may not make decisions, their active participation is often seen to increase the likelihood of sustained peace.”42 Women’s exclusion from political dialogues does not carry a similar threat. Young people are found to be drivers of insecurity. Due to high unemployment among youth, there is a proliferation of small arms and lawlessness, which results in criminality. Furthermore, in the absence of an effective government and police force, elders are encouraged to provide arms to youths. “Elders have become part of the problem, and women too, in that they encourage cattle raiding both to support livelihoods and to collect dowries.”43 Violence that is perpetrated by tribal forces such as the White Army, Gel-Weng, and Arrow Boys, is actually manipulated by higher-level political actors44 who have a direct impact on WPS. Yet youth activists and youth

Interview 10 – 12 December 2019 – Wau


Conciliation Resources (2018), “Youth Perspectives on Peace and Security: South Sudan,” Sudan_CR_0.pdf p. 5 42

Ibid, 3.




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organisations do not explicitly align their agenda with the women’s agenda. As such, while there are many important platforms available to young people and currently being utilized by a few women’s organizations to amplify the voices and issues of women and girls, the lack of a clear shared agenda may limit the reach of public forums such as radio awareness-raising programmes and television advocacy initiatives that are spearheaded by the youth. Young people have knowledge and an appreciation of society including the power relations within it. However, most of their advocacy is generally focused on civil and political rights, likely because priority areas are being dictated by the organizations that are funding them, and possibly, by the lack of collaboration between youth groups/activists and women’s rights activists.45 Youth activism in South Sudan has also not been immune to state surveillance and other institutional constraints. For instance, active university-based student groups that deal with issues of social justice and rights (e.g. the School of Law Oratory Club (SLOC) at the University of Juba) have been subjected to various forms of harassment from state officials, and are hampered by the fact that they are constituted and operate within an institutional/university structure that determines their effectiveness. For example, the university officially recognizes SLOC by issuing a letter of no objection, which SLOC then has to submit to donors in order to get funding. This raises the question of autonomy when setting an agenda. The university is using the issue of autonomy of youth activists to undermine the work of youth activists. For instance, SLOC members highlight the fact that they receive donor funding because university officials are afraid to upset the status quo under the prevailing political circumstances.46 Institutionalized youth movements such as SLOC are thus not autonomous, are constrained by structures of power and patronage, and are potentially undermined internally, by the university and externally, by donors. While they are potentially great allies, it is worth examining their potential for radical critique of society under these operating circumstances, especially as concerns gender issues. There seems to be differences in approach to certain issues (e.g. sexuality) between younger women and older women in the movement. On the surface, there seems not to be a shared commitment to certain issues especially those deemed less urgent by the women’s movement. For instance, on a recent rape case, some of the young women interviewed spoke up about the widely reported rape of a female hotel worker. Women led organizations in Wau, on the other hand, remained silent about the case. This differing response to the rape might be read as a reflection of age, although age may not fully account for the fact that South Sudanese women who were active and vocal against SGBV in the past, remained silent in this one case. It may have had more to do with political expediency or other political factors. This is more so because the case was highly publicized and would have provided a good opportunity for the established


Focus group discussion with (University of Juba) School of Law Oratory Club (SLOC) at the university on 7 December 2019.



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women’s movement to amplify the issue of sexual violence.47 There is also a sense in which younger women in the movement question or view the SRHR agenda as having been depoliticized. Where SRHR is being implemented, important feminist/ women’s rights concerns such as sexuality and abortion are still disarticulated, and are also silenced within the broader movement. This raises the question of whether or not the older women’s movement thinks it can learn from the younger women’s movement. Can issues that are important for younger women find currency and support in the broader women’s movement? Another issue relates to the access that younger women have to spaces and sub-cultures that are not readily accessible to older women. Younger women in the movement see themselves as central in tackling the scourge of gangsterism that is on the rise among young men in South Sudan. Gangs are constructed around American gang culture. Groups such as the ‘Niggas’ (Wau) and ‘Torontos’ (Juba) are involved in activities including drugs and gang rapes.48 It is easier for younger women to tackle these issues directly because of social/cultural access to the gangs, whether through intimate, group or familial relations to gang members. The final issue has to do with feminism. It is striking that even young women are very reluctant to self-identify as feminists and instead, see themselves as “just advocating for the rights of women.”49 This disarticulation of women’s rights from politics is observed across the spectrum of women’s rights activists, and points to the need to strategize around feminist education and consciousness raising.


Interview 11 - 11 December 2019. Wau.





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Issues threatening movement building and organizing One of the major issues threatening the women’s movement is the funding gap. Funding for women’s rights remains a necessary cornerstone for movement building. The lack of adequate resourcing of women’s rights work, and the narrowing of the scope of funding under the current political environment in South Sudan is precipitating rivalries and divisions among women. Different women interviewed expressed concern that the competition over resources and funding opportunities has a significant effect on unity among women. However, given that the funding constraint is not one that is likely to be resolved by women themselves, the bigger point of focus or concern should be the capacity of elite women and movement leaders to develop an inclusive agenda for women’s rights, which might both unite women around a common cause and redistribute available resources. Another divisive issue emerging is the exclusionary discourses, in particular around questions of sexuality. LGBTQ rights, for example, are being used as a weapon of marginalization to bring down other women, especially younger women, and to isolate them and their work from the broader women’s rights and empowerment agenda. This factor needs to be read in tandem with the funding gap – i.e. the ways in which competition over resources deepens or intensifies identity politics and tends to go handin-hand with looking at sexual and ethnic minorities as a problem, rather than dealing collectively with the structural questions of the wartime and post-war funding environment. The extent to which women’s rights activists and movements in South Sudan are able to organize autonomously also emerged as a point of concern. At present, the existing networking opportunities for women are mainly urban-based and organized around and by international funding organizations (e.g. the UNOCHA briefings, and even the Women’s Monthly Forum). Women’s organizations are not mobilizing or networking autonomously, and this has implications for the broader movement’s agenda setting and cohesiveness. It also has implications for the ability of movements to mobilize the support and participation of rural-based women and those in the urban peripheries. The militarization of the government is another issue worth noting. Over the last few months of the transition, although this goes back to the secession period, political appointments appear to rely on military background as a primary requirement. The current caretaker state governors, who all happen to be former or current military leaders, for example, replaced the elected state governors, including the only female governor. Also, recently, in the state of Jonglei, the contestants for governorships were all men with military backgrounds. Using military background as a criterion for leadership recognition may disadvantage women in political life. Militarizing states will minimize women’s perspectives in decision-making. The government should observe the 35% mandate in appointing governors.50 The manifestation of state feminism in South Sudan has had the effect of elevating malleable women whose agenda is more aligned with that of the state. In the end, only a few elite women are promoted


Nyathon James Hoth Mai (2015), “The Role of Women in Peace–Building in South Sudan,” Sudd Institute.

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while the majority of women are overlooked. From case studies elsewhere in Africa (e.g. Ghana) the ability of women’s NGOs to influence the national machinery seems to depend on women’s ability to constitute a common and broad-based platform that includes politicians, nurses, traders, activists and so on, to push a common agenda against state repression. The reality in South Sudan, however, is that most women in state positions are political appointees. If women’s political participation reinforces state and patriarchal interests, it is likely to become less representative. The outcome will be that elite women implement a statist agenda and not one inspired by/of women, and reflect state sectarian interests with very little feedback to grassroots women or representation of a broader women’s agenda.51 The quota debate is a strong indication of this. The issue of censorship is also a challenge for women’s organizing. Many of the organizations interviewed attribute their inability to go directly to the grassroots for outreach work to the fact that they require many levels of authorization from chiefs, traditional leadership, and state authorities. Even when organizations do reach women in rural areas, traditional leaders who consider human rights work as a western imposition, censor the message of the women’s movement. Access to justice is also undermined by the fact that most people in the rural communities prefer the mediation of chiefs to that of courts, despite the limited jurisdiction of traditional authorities (restricted to marriage and divorce, family disputes). Women’s organizations are also succumbing to a narrowing of the women’s liberation agenda. Different priority areas and interests are expressed by different groups of women, and these are influenced both by access to funding and priorities of the transitional government. The inability of women’s representatives/leaders to derive their priorities from below (a fact that is related to the problem of state feminism) seems to be preventing the women’s movement from being as cohesive in its mission as it might otherwise be. This allows a reassertion of patriarchal, sectarian (ethnic), and narrow class and ethnic interests and discourses into the women’s agenda. As seen in the interviews conducted in Juba, the occurrence of shrinking civic spaces is apparent in South Sudan. This particularly affects human rights defenders (HRDs). Due to the nature of their mission (political), human rights organizations in South Sudan are particularly vulnerable to infiltration by state security agents and spies. This structure is enforced partly by the need to obtain approval from national security prior to holding events.52 Furthermore, women human rights defenders are targeted much more often than men HRDs with women HRDs experiencing sexual harassment, threats, intimidation and sexual violence in the course of their work. As one woman HRD put it, “There is no safe place for women in South Sudan.”53 The implication is that HRD protection strategies have to be gendered. The strategies being carried out in South Sudan do not sufficiently reflect this nuance. Relatedly, the issue of personal safety arises. Female HRDs do not sufficiently understand the dangers


Interview 12 – 13 January 2020 – Juba


Interview 13 - 9 December 2019 – Juba


Interview 14 – 6 December 2019 – Juba

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that working in conflict regions entail and are therefore, unprepared when confronted with different threats. As one HRD stated, “Women do not realize they are HRDs.” Lack of awareness of the dangers that surround human/women’s rights work in such contexts means that there is need for capacity building and risk assessment. But at the same time, there is a lack of resources to train female HRDs, and advocacy training, where available, is brief and too intensive. In order to extend the reach and effectiveness of women’s rights work, there is need to focus on empowering female HRDs, given that women in the grassroots may not feel comfortable speaking with men due to cultural biases. Also, certain cases such as rape often entail trauma and require trust and confidentiality when dealing with survivors.54 There also appears to be a fragmented approach to WPS initiatives. The war economy and donor prioritization of humanitarian work constantly diverts funding away from issues in which, women’s organization are interested, especially GBV, economic empowerment and women’s political participation. This majorly indicates that there is no consolidated approach to Women, Peace and Security work. Humanitarian work should not divert the focus away from economic, sexual and political rights, as all of these are part of a larger framework that affects and decides the safety and security of women and their communities. The lack of frequent exchange of ideas between women’s organizations or between rural and urban activists has had an impact on the programming and outreach activities of some of the organizations interviewed. This may, in part, be attributed to the rural-urban divide and the accompanying problem of marginalization of women in ‘distant’ counties/states (far from the center, Juba). This affects the possibility of broad participation by a cross-section of women, and it also affects the opportunity to share transferable skills as well as women’s rights work. The problem of distance seems furthermore, to cause laxity, with many organizations relying on old faces as focal points for their outreach work. The result is the recycling of personnel and of ideas, and very little growth in movement thinking and strategies.55 Furthermore, building feminist movements remains a challenge. The majority of those interviewed for this study admitted having negative connotations of the notion of feminism. Of those interviewed, many of the women’s rights activists across the generational divide do not self-identify as feminists. Many of the women interviewed attach negative connotations to the concept of feminism and associate feminism with dressing in vulgar clothing, negative actions, prostitution, and so on.56 The question of feminism is crucial as it is an indication of the perception tied to women’s rights work. That is, whether or not women see their work as political and whether they consider movement building as a prerequisite. It is, however, also apparent that what is being expressed is not as much a rejection of feminism, as it is a lack of knowledge regarding feminist principles.




Interview 15 – 6 December 2019 – Juba



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The nature of organizing and mobilization is short term, likely due to the structure of funding for Women’s rights work. This raises the issue of sustainability, especially of youth mentorship programmes and youth-led initiatives that are being funded directly by donors or through women’s organizations. There is no long-term plan for mentorship and sustainability of young people’s activist work. The genuinely interested youth try to sustain their projects on their own but suffer isolation and lack material support. The implication of this is that their efforts may not be directed towards the longer-term objective of building movements. Finally, the lack of technical and institutional support for women’s rights work is apparent, especially for smaller organizations. Women’s organizations have good ideas but lack the financial and technical support for implementation. This problem also affects bigger organizations like UNMISS Gender Unit, which is severely understaffed with only 1 staff member in Juba office, and is severely constrained in its ability to attend to issues at boma and payam levels.57

Opportunities for the women’s movement One of the positive manifestations of the war is that it strengthened women’s resilience and opened up spaces and opportunities for them to exit the domestic realm and enter into business and the public realm more broadly.58 As some of the interview participants observed, “Women will never return to the kitchen.”59 The break from the domestication of women does not signal an absence of patriarchy, but rather, the opportunity to occupy more public spaces has allowed women to see themselves as real political actors. The wide membership base that exists in women’s SACCOs offers a good starting point and an identifiable constituency upon which to build/strengthen the movement. SSWEN, for instance, has about 1,000 members, 700 are active members while 300 are dormant due to migration or business collapse. Although under-resourced, SSWEN is fairly connected, with members in Juba, Yambio, Mundri, and Tereketa. Women’s organizing tends to be based around a common agenda (e.g. savings can be harnessed towards a broader movement-building agenda). There are many networking opportunities that are built into the institutional organizing of work around SGBV/VAW. For instance, most organizations working on GBV meet regularly in meetings of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), UN sub-cluster meetings (UNOCHA), UN Women and Access to


Interview 16 – 13 January 2020 – Juba


Interview 17 – 6 December 2019 – Juba


Interview 18 – 6 December 2019 0 – Juba

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Justice RoL meetings (UNDP), where different organizations share achievements and receive referrals on a monthly basis. Such forums can be utilized more deliberately by women’s organizations to identify and strategize around common issues, which affect them all. Women’s organizations also enjoy a strong relationship with the Ministry of Gender. This relationship has been built over time on the basis of consultations, facilitation of programmes, and participation in women’s activities. Women’s accessibility to the ministry has had a big impact on the effectiveness of advocacy, especially in relation to the state. The potential to take advantage of this kind of patronage has not yet been fully explored, and strategies should be devised, especially in relation to the political dynamics of women’s rights and movement building work. The framing of the women’s agenda remains an effective tool for activism that can be strengthened. For instance, in the course of their human/women’s rights activism, women in Wau coined a slogan for the women’s movement – Know your rights to defend yourself. This slogan emerged in 2010 during implementation of the ‘One Country, One Sudan’ campaign in conjunction with SIHA’s ‘Women’s agenda for peace’. This slogan is still in use and serves as a strong conceptual framing for a common agenda among women. Women are involved in a cornucopia of livelihood strategies, which can serve as points of intervention for movement building. These include market women, charcoal/firewood, cafeteria businesses, and ‘watching clubs’ where people pay to watch televised football matches. The watching club in Wau is one of the most popular income-generating activities run by women and it is also a melting pot of diverse groups.60 Integrating modes of advocacy into existing daily livelihood activities performed by women might be a useful approach to dealing with the lack of funding for economic rights. There are many forums through which women’s rights activists and movement builders regularly caucus. Examples include: the Women’s Monthly Forum and South Sudan Women’s Coalition, a coalition of 46 women’s organizations whose secretariat is hosted by Eve Organization.61 The coalition is issuebased and emerged out of the need for a consolidated response contribution from women to the peace agreement after 2017. The coalition is a signatory to the transition agreement and therefore indicative of women’s representation in the political process. A life histories project and approach to documenting women’s struggles has long been considered a feminist methodology. Many of the older women activists conducted the South Sudan Interviews by way of sharing their personal experiences and journeys, highlighting that “women are very traumatized by their personal experiences”. The need to share their insights through personal narratives is interesting and indicative of trauma, but also of healing. This is an underutilized avenue that can be developed in building an archive of how women experience war and insecurity, and emerge with more innovative responses to issues of WPS. These narratives reveal a wealth of knowledge and wisdom which should


Interview 19 – 12 December 2019 – Wau


Interview 15 – 6 December 2019 – Juba

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be conveyed to a younger generation of women while still paying attention to the existing ageism, hierarchies and the specific nature of tensions, competition and distrust prevailing in activists and movement building spaces. There is a significant strengthening of data collection particularly with regard to SGBV. This has happened partly because of a system centralization of data through the Ministry of Gender,62 and also particularly, through initiatives such as the One-Stop Centre set up by SIHA/UNFPA at the Wau Teaching Hospital. Women view the increased reporting and response to GBV as a collective effort, and the physical presence of the One-Stop Centre has increased referrals of cases by women’s organizations and other human rights organizations. The One-Stop Center is emerging as a significant melting pot of diverse actors in SRHR, including the government, international and regional donors, women’s organizations and activists. It has also sparked a kind of citizen-activism through the referral system and in this sense acts as an important initiative through which to amplify the scourge of VAW. Furthermore, the data collected on rape cases and child abuse through the One Stop Center are an important source of information for UNMISS who use these statistics to advise their head office in NYC and when necessary, make recommendations as to changes in focus. In this regard, there could be a more proactive approach to ensuring that those recommendations are considered in the reviewing of policies and approaches to WPS. There is some recognition of the link between economic violence/livelihoods and GBV, and the structural nature of economic violence, an implicit acknowledgment of the role of the state in the vulnerability structure of women’s livelihoods. The Department of Community Development (Ministry of Gender) for instance, links women with the Ministry of Agriculture and also, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).63 Such structural links should be made more explicit in the programming and advocacy approaches. The emergence of broad women’s coalitions such as the South Sudan Women’s Peace Network, and the Women’s Block is being taken by some women as a sign that a women’s movement exists or is emerging.64 Women are also able to come together outside of organizations, at the church level, through which women are solving issues such as boundaries and instigating peace talks between warring ethnic groups.65 It is necessary to examine each of these emerging spaces for women’s organizing, including what is driving them and whether they see themselves as movements that have political objectives. Though not previously a factor, ethnicity had become a consideration in the women’s movement after the CPA was signed. Due to high levels of gender violence after the civil war, women were driven to unite against this insecurity. This solidarity among women functioned to lessen the inter-ethnic rivalries and women shifted from ethnic solidarities to solidarities around issues such as peace-building, trauma-


Interview 11 - 11 December 2019. Wau


Interview 20 – 11 December 2019 – Wau


Interview 1 - 11 December 2019 - Wau.



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counseling and tribal reconciliation.66 The UNMISS Gender Unit established in 2000 was as a result of efforts by the women’s movement and women’s rights activists, who pushed the idea that women/gender issues needed concrete representation within the UNMISS agenda. As a result, gender was later incorporated into the department of field operations and peace-keeping. The revitalized peace process has once again gathered women around a common agenda, and the catalyzing factor for women’s interest is the issue of insecurity or women’s realization that they are the victims.67

Recommendations & areas of intervention •

Framing of programming and campaign messaging • The question of the framing of women’s rights campaign messages is important as it highlights the objectives of movements, what messages they seek to put across, and therefore, what becomes legible to the state and policy makers, and what is heard as politically legitimate.68 • One focus should be to highlight contradictions and conflicts that emerge between mandates of different organizations with different interests and objectives. For instance, highlighting the tensions between VAW prevention work done by women’s organizations on the one hand, and the ‘protection of civilians’ mandate, which is a focus of international NGOs and the UN. • Deal with programmatic silos - In the development of programme strategies, emphasis should be placed on highlighting observed links between different thematic issues that are causatively linked (e.g. linking peace and security or gendered violence and women’s economic empowerment) in order to account for the ways in which insecurity impacts women’s personal, social and economic autonomy. This also has a movement building effect due to the possibility of fostering collaboration. • The above might also address the narrow programmatic agenda of women’s organizations that is occurring as a result of funding constraints. One strategy might be to draw connections between WPS, which is a major focus now, and other neglected thematic areas such as VAW and economic empowerment.


Interview 19 – 12 December 2019 – Wau




FGD – 7 December 2019 – Juba

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Organic struggles and feminist movement building • Utilize existing women’s collectives (Women’s Monthly Forum, the South Sudan Women’s Coalition) as feminist consciousness raising platforms, and as forus ms through which to debate current and/or divisive issues (the 35% quota debate) and make them more inclusive. While in this nascent stage of the transition, the quota is still very important but this study highlights the ways in which it can also be exclusionary as it has become more connected to ‘elite’ women who have high levels of education and/or connections. As such, it may be worthwhile to work with the women’s collectives to explicitly broaden the topics on which they focus in order to be more inclusive of all women, including women in rural areas. • There are also powerful struggles being led by grassroots women (land struggles in Wau) through which women have been able to claim their user rights to resources, and in the process, are challenging established power networks and authorities, and strengthening women both economically and politically. The land case shows the ways in which women can organically emerge as powerful political actors. It might be worthwhile to identify such women’s struggles in their infant stages, provide support, and view these spaces as movement building opportunities. • Broaden the notion of ‘capacity building’ beyond its link with literacy and education, towards acknowledging women’s diverse strengths. For instance, capacity building should also focus on training and strengthening women’s capacities to mobilize resources, and should not just focus on the acquisition of skills and education, which contains a class element and excludes many women. • Account for the varied ways in which women experience politics and law, especially rural and peri-urban women. Such an approach entails nuancing outreach programs to incorporate the lived realities of many South Sudanese women who mainly experience the state indirectly through customary authorities. At the same time, capitalize on women’s newfound spaces in the public domains of trade, politics and culture. • South Sudanese women have historically mobilized or come together around issues. Therefore, the question is how to retain momentum arising out of such issue-driven mobilizing, and direct it towards consolidating the women’s movement and a longer-term agenda.

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Political parties as a vehicle of mobilization • Women seem to link substantive political power to participation in political parties. There is a strong view among the women leadership that the prescribed (35%) quota will not be achieved through civil society advocacy alone, and that women must join political parties in order to benefit from it. Consideration should be given to strategies for bridging the gap between political parties and women’s movement politics. • This strategy might also be utilized as a strategy for narrowing the gap between women’s political and economic agendas. The demands that women place on parties should extend beyond the demand for quotas and to also incorporate demands for women’s economic empowerment which has gradually fallen off the agenda of donors.

Intergenerational dialogue • The existing youth initiatives (e.g. the School of Law Oratory Club (SLOC) which is already engaged in human/women’s rights awareness campaigns) are a good avenue with which to deepen intergenerational dialogues. These clubs are, however, easily captured by donor interests and therefore, a more considered approach to engaging them is necessary. • Build capacity of old /parent organizations (e.g. Women’s Union) which seem to be vulnerable partly because of a lack of pragmatism, and because of the stifling of both the rise of younger and more active organizations, and the leadership of younger women emerging from within the movements. • Institutionalized youth movements are not autonomous and are constrained and potentially undermined both internally, by university or other institutional hosts and externally, by donors. It is worth examining their potential for radical critique of society under these operating circumstances especially with regard to gender issues.


Interview 6 – 10 De69cember 2019 – Wau






Interview 6-10 December 2019 - Wau





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Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa