Civil War and Its Impact on Women’s Rights in South Sudan

While some advances have been made, civil war and political instability significantly hinder the improvement of women’s lives in South Sudan.

Listen to our podcast with Jane Edward, as she discusses her article in Hawwa.

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has grappled with many problems since its birth — civil war, poverty, lack of development. It achieved independence from Sudan in 2011 following several decades of devastating civil wars. However, post-independence, civil war broke out in late 2013 and continues to wreak havoc on the nation.

Amongst the groups working towards rebuilding South Sudan are women’s groups who are building the case for gender equality. In 2011, the new government granted a 25 percent affirmative action for women’s representation—but the 2013 civil war ensured that the gains from such legislation did not reach the intended. A new study, published in Hawwa argues that while some advances have been made, civil war and political instability significantly hinder the improvement of women’s lives. At the same time, women’s associations face challenges from the chaos, war and inconsistent external funding.

"Despite the appalling conditions of war, and displacement as refugees and internally displaced people (IDPS), South Sudanese women have not succumbed to the challenges that they have faced in exile or in internally displaced people’s camps. Rather, they have mobilized and campaigned for peace to prevail and to demand improvement in women’s conditions in South Sudan and abroad", states the primary researcher Jane Kani Edward, Clinical Assistant Professor at Fordham University. Dr Edward was born in pre-independence South Sudan, and she has carried out extensive research in the country on women, education, war, and immigration.

Edwards new research explores the challenges and opportunities for the women’s movement to realise both practical gender-based achievements (basic needs, services, and goods) and strategic advances (political and cultural equality between men and women). Prior to the outbreak of Sudan’s second civil war (1983–2005), there were only three girls’ secondary schools in the South. The author articulates how access to education can improve women’s lives and how several women’s groups themselves focus on education through workshops, conferences, and trainings.

Post-independence, a quota system was established for women in politics. In theory, 25% of the government should comprise women. Such quotas do have benefits in that they guarantee representation and ultimately help change the perception of women’s roles in the political sphere. At the same time, often it is women who have connections to male politicians who are elected. Importantly, even of the women appointed to the government, none have held high positions in, for example, defence or the judiciary. Rather, women are ‘relegated’ to the service-oriented institutions.

Two important associations that have taken up the role of education and organization are the South Sudanese Women Empowerment Network (SSWEN) and South Sudanese Women United (SSWU). SSWEN focuses on education and policy advocacy for, as its name states, the empowerment of women. The second, SSWU, promotes healing, reconciliation, and the advancement of peace for South Sudan. This group was created specifically in response to the new conflicts that erupted in 2013.

Certainly, the promotion of women’s issues and gender equality is impossible without financial support. In South Sudan, much funding is external and relies upon organizations such as the United Nations or networks of diaspora in the United States or African countries such as Kenya and Uganda. Unfortunately, one drawback is the role of donor funding in shaping the activities of organizations such as SSWU and SSWEN.
‘Relying entirely on external funding is not the best option for the success of any organization in the long run. Exploring alternative homegrown sources of funding such as fundraising, membership fees, and other income-generating activities is important to overcome the constraints of donor agencies’, Dr Edward argues.

Despite the recency of the women’s movement, women in South Sudan are making significant progress in different walks of life. This is reflected in improved education levels, engagement in global events focusing on gender, and the mandatory 25% affirmation for representation of women in the government. Dr Edward concludes by stating that because the civil war is the biggest threat to the South Sudanese women’s movement, ending the war is extremely crucial for smooth functioning of the movement; this can be made possible by putting into action the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan.