Women at the table in South Sudan

March 17, 2017

“Do you think that women have the time to participate in a peace process? They have so much work to do, taking care of the household, the children, going to work in the fields. Often, they are the head of the household or they have to supplement their husband’s income by going out to sell items in the market. Where do you think they would find the time to join the men and discuss peace and security?”

A compelling argument, mostly because it sketches a vivid picture of a very busy day, indeed an overburdened life in which such participation seems a luxury. And luxuries in South Sudan are hard to come by, even in the capital Juba, where I recently attended a meeting to kick-off a joint programme on gender inclusive peace and security.

Don’t leave it to the men
Fortunately, another participant at the meeting offered an equally persuasive counter-argument. “Women have no time to engage in peace processes, you say? You are right, we women lead busy lives, but it becomes even more difficult to take care of our responsibilities when we are dealing with violence and insecurity. How can we take care of our children, work in the fields or go to the market, when every step of the way we can be sure that there is danger? And how can we leave it up to men to negotiate peace when they don’t even know exactly how we are affected by all this trouble?”

The retort is met with a collective grunt of approval as she sits down, her face filled with a mixture of excitement and relief. The debate is an exercise – people are asked to argue one side or another, whether they agree with it or not. The exercise generates a lot of energy and inspired participation. Some of the participants take their role so seriously that they do their best not only to present the argument with the gusto, but to physically act like the type of person they are representing through their body language, posture and overall comportment. Especially those playing the devil’s advocate, arguing against the inclusion of women in peace processes, apply some imaginative tricks to underscore their point. For instance, this group has the men sit in the first row during the argument, and the women sit in the second row.

We have reached the final exercise of the workshop. We have all given up on the air conditioner, which has more or less kept us cool for most of the past five days while we have been working intensively on the nuts and bolts of the joint programme. The preposterous heat blazing just outside our small conference room makes us thankful for whatever relief the air conditioner can muster, and we continue to debate at full strength. Arguments range from principles to the practical, and Scripture is quoted by both sides.

Gender is not foreign
South Sudan faces a multitude of challenges that are either directly or indirectly linked to the country’s dismally high rate of gender inequality, including a legacy of war and a prevailing culture of violence and impunity, ongoing economic crisis and a weak rule of law. One of the pitfalls of working on a ‘controversial’ issue such as women’s rights and empowerment in a traditional, patriarchal environment, is that gender equality is often regarded as a foreign concept, imposed upon the South Sudanese people by international donors.

One of the participants in the workshop recounts his experience of returning to the place where he grew up, happy to be able to bring ‘development’ to his community. But as soon as he broached the issue of gender equality he was regarded as an ‘outsider’ who brings foreign ideas to the village. As he speaks, the tall young man with a friendly face smiles the way people who love telling stories often do. But in his eyes I can see that the issue bothers him. While he sprinkles his story with a salient detail here and there, some of us nod our heads in recognition. Another participant remarks that perhaps we need an ‘alternative’ terminology to use when working on gender, in order to avoid terms that function like a red flag.

Go local
Although I like the suggestion, I think that the story touches on something that goes beyond the practical issue of using (and finding) non-inflammatory terminology in order to appease gatekeepers. While the human rights principles underpinning legal frameworks such as UNSCR 1325 are universal, and South Sudan has developed its own National Action Plan for implementation of the resolution, still too many interventions pay inadequate attention to ensuring a locally-owned approach embedded in local realities. Contrary to what some people believe, using a language of justice that is relevant and meaningful in the cultural, historical and social context in which it is used does not dilute the significance of its underlying values, nor does it stop us from providing maximum support to local women and gender activists. Instead, it can help local women and gender activists and practitioners to create entry points for more openness – with gatekeepers, but also in our conversations with each other – and possibilities for more inclusive politics.

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