By Ana Torres
Like in any other nation, Sudanese women have contributed to shaping the history of their country, demonstrating outstanding leadership to shape the future of Sudan. However, when it comes to political participation, they have been completely sidelined from meaningful participation in public institutions for decades at the hands of the Bashir regime and his archaic and oppressive laws against women. This, in addition to the long-standing crises and economic disparities, worsens gender inequalities and pre-existing patterns of cultural barriers that promote discrimination against women. Nevertheless, Sudanese women have remained remarkably resilient, as they were instrumental in the 2019 revolution that ousted Bashir’s authoritarian regime. Despite their leading efforts in ushering in a new era for their country, Sudanese women continued to be excluded from the transition arrangement and the peace process in Sudan. The interim government, despite the promise to integrate women’s voices, showed no genuine interest in fulfilling it. As a result, women’s representation in the interim government and implementation of the Juba Peace Agreement were inadequate.
Even worse now, following the military takeover, the civic space for women to have their voices heard has shrunk significantly. Negotiations to resolve the current crisis in Sudan have also been inadequate, as international actors have not prioritized women’s participation. Women must be included in the negotiations because sustainable change in Sudan cannot be achieved without their active participation. However, to ensure women’s meaningful inclusion and participation at all levels of decision-making in Sudan, a civilian-led government must be restored. Without it, the civic space for women will continue to be limited. Therefore, international actors must hold accountable those responsible for orchestrating the coup and immediately restore a civilian-led government to ensure women’s active participation in all levels of decision-making to achieve the societal change that the Sudanese people have been demanding.
Sudanese women were instrumental figures in the revolution that overthrew al-Bashir in 2019. News outlets estimated that about 70 percent of the protesters were women who not only marched at the frontlines of the protests but were committed to providing food, resources, and information for other protestors. Yet even with the pivotal role women played in the revolution, this did not translate to adequate levels of participation in the post-revolution political processes. Women were sidelined during the negotiations between the Transitional Military Council and Forces for Freedom and Change in 2019 that led to the interim government. This resulted in low representation of women despite the interim government’s obligations under the Constitutional Charter, which stipulated that women must constitute 40% of the leaders of the Transitional Legislative Council’s members. Article 1.20 of the Juba Peace Agreement signed in October 2020 also states the importance of women’s representation at all levels of decision-making and emphasizes that women’s representation at all levels of power and decision-making must be no less than 40 percent. The interim government did not adhere to the promises made in these documents, as women’s representation in Sudan on all levels remained at abysmal levels.
The initial transitional government formed after the agreement between the Military Council and Forces for Freedom and Change was composed of an 18-member Cabinet of Ministers, of which only four were women, and an 11-member Sovereign Council, of which only two were women. Thus, the total rate of women’s participation at the outset of the formation of the interim government was 20.6 percent. Tragically, these numbers decreased rather than increased as the transitional period continued. The Juba Peace Agreement led to the reshuffle of the interim government, as it required both the Cabinet of Ministers and Sovereign Council to incorporate rebels into leadership positions. Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok’s cabinet also increased the number of cabinet members to 25. The Sovereign Council added three more seats for the rebels, creating a 14-member council. Yet, despite the increase in political leaders within the interim government, the number of women within it remained the same. Then in May 2021, one of the two women serving on the Sovereign Council, Aisha Musa El-Said, resigned, accusing the military component of the transitional government of sidelining civilian voices. Such developments decreased women’s participation in the interim government from 20.6 percent to 12 percent. Similarly, women’s participation remained low on the regional level, as only two women were appointed as governors out of the 18 states in Sudan. This means that total women’s participation at the regional level remained a pathetic 11 percent.
Despite these challenges, Sudanese women remained remarkably resilient, as they continuously demanded the interim government fulfill its obligation to ensure their full and meaningful participation in all levels of decision-making. For instance, after Prime Minister Hamdok announced the 18 new state governors last year, women protested against the low levels of their representation in high-level government positions and demanded a commitment to the agreed-upon participation rate of 40 percent. In addition, the Darfuri women that took part in the Juba Peace Agreement negotiations accused the interim Sudanese government, Peace Commission, and rebel movements of violating the Juba Peace Agreement’s provision on the representation of women in governance. Unfortunately, the interim government continued to fail Sudanese women by not keeping its promise and adhering to the agreement.
Now, with the military takeover, the civic space for women has severely shrunk, making it nearly impossible for women to make their voices heard. Although an agreement between the Sudanese military and Prime Minister Hamdok was reached, this agreement has not led to the restoration of a civilian-led government. Rather, the agreement legitimizes the military coup and extends the power of the military over the political transition, undermining any progress made towards the meaningful inclusion of women. While the military was supposed to transfer power to the civilian-led government on November 17, 2021, the agreement between Prime Minister Hamdok and the military modified this timeframe, handing power to the military over the civilian-led government until elections will supposedly be held in 2023. This is extremely concerning because, without a clear timeframe, the military can continue holding overwhelming power over the political transition, resulting in the continued exclusion of women from decision-making.
Darfur Women Action Group (DWAG) has taken an institutional approach to combat women’s exclusion and strongly advocates for women’s inclusion at all levels of decision-making in Sudan. For this, DWAG has developed a document entitled, “Strategic Framework for Women’s Participation and Empowerment in Sudan,” which analyzes and addresses women’s issues on the basis of three principles: protection, prevention, and participation. DWAG hopes the Strategic Framework will serve as a guide for a National Action Plan to establish equal participation and to secure the protection of women and girls’ human rights. Further, the Strategic Framework creates the foundation that will allow women from across Sudan to work together to mainstream their agenda into public institutions in order for meaningful change to take place.
To accomplish this, international actors must pressure the military to restore the civilian-led government that can adopt an institutional approach to women’s inclusion in all levels of decision-making. Therefore, international actors must implement strong measures such as targeted sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezing on General al-Burhan, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemeti,” and other military members until they surrender to a civilian-led government. It is only with a civilian-led government that the demands of women and women-led civil society organizations—particularly those from historically marginalized and conflict-affected communities—will be heard and the promises of the interim government be fulfilled. The inclusion of women in governance would guarantee a Sudanese government that is more unified, representative, and able to tackle the challenges that all people around the country face.
Sudanese women have demonstrated time and time again that their leadership is critical in affecting societal change and that they must be equally included in the transformation of their country. Thus, when a truly civilian-led government is implemented in Sudan, it must look beyond meeting the 40 percent quota and create a strong civic space where women can have their voices heard; merely meeting the quota is not enough. International and regional actors working in Sudan must also make women’s inclusion a prerequisite for any support or collaboration in Sudan. Furthermore, empowering women civil society leaders and providing them with the tools, access to communication and technology, and economic empowerment must be the foundation for all interventions. These efforts will enable women to bring their voices to the center of decision-making and collectively work for the transformation of Sudan and foster sustainable social change. With women’s active participation in the transition, Sudan will finally undergo the societal change necessary to truly lead the country to a democratic and peaceful future.
Ana Torres is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations and a minor in Human Rights. She is currently the Outreach and Partnership Building Intern for Darfur Women Action Group.