Sudanese women urge gender balance in country's peace process

Alaa Salah (left), civil society activist and community leader, addresses the U.N. Security Council meeting on women and peace and security. Photo by: Evan Schneider / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — Sudanese women were influential in the widespread protests that led to the military overthrow of the country’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, in April. Six months later, they find themselves once again sidelined from their country’s peace process, according to female civil society organizers.

“It was disappointing. This is a continuation of the old government, which said they would give women opportunities. But during the negotiations between the transitional army and the transitional government there was only one woman,” said Safaa Elagib Adam Ayoub, secretary-general of the Khartoum-based nonprofit Community Development Association.

“[In] the past six months, only one woman was permitted to join the transitional government. That was very disheartening. It showed that we were not being listened to.”

— Alaa Salah, activist

Ayoub and other colleagues from Sudan placed the spotlight on ongoing women, peace, and security challenges during a recent session of the United Nations Security Council. On Wednesday, the council reaffirmed its commitment to implementing the landmark 1325 resolution that calls for the inclusion of women in peace negotiations, among other areas.

Almost 20 years after the Security Council approved 1325, progress on the women, peace, and security agenda has not materialized as quickly, or comprehensively, as hoped, according to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

Sudan offers one example of a country that has yet to adopt a national action plan for implementing 1325. Other conflict- and post-conflict countries have also seen a backsliding of women’s role in peacemaking in recent years. In Colombia, the murder of female human rights defenders has been on the rise since the government and armed groups brokered a peace agreement in 2016.

And in Sudan, only one woman participated in the talks in April between the military and the umbrella protest movement Forces of Freedom for Change.

“A national action plan was prepared and put forward by the previous administration, but because there is no political will… It is not a priority for the government,” Ayoub told Devex.

University student Alaa Salah, who became a symbol of the protests after a photo of her addressing a crowd from atop a car went viral, addressed the Security Council on Wednesday.

“Women led resistance committees and sit-ins, planned protest routes and disobeyed curfews, even in the midst of a declared state of emergency that left them vulnerable to security forces. Many were teargassed, threatened, assaulted, and thrown in jail without any charge or due process,” Salah told member states at the Security Council meeting.

Salah spoke on behalf of a coalition of Sudanese female civil society leaders and called for at least 50% representation of Sudanese women across all peace processes and in the current transitional government. The transitional government is being led by a joint military and civilian council for the next three years.

“One of the main challenges is after we have done high-level advocacy for the past six months, only one woman was permitted to join the transitional government. That was very disheartening. It showed that we were not being listened to,” Salah told Devex in a sit-down interview in New York, speaking through an Arabic translator.

Women and young people made up 70% of the protests, according to 22-year-old Salah, even as they faced sexual harassment and abuse as well as retaliation from their own families for their participation.

Salah explained that she became engaged in the protests after becoming disillusioned with high rates of poverty, corruption, and food insecurity.  

“I grew up hearing stories about how Sudan was very fertile, with baskets of fruit and resources in the region. And the youth did not see that. They grew up seeing the opposite of that. They would ask each other, ‘Why is this happening?’ That is why they all mobilized and decided to go out,” Salah said.

Salah’s friends and family were not surprised by her participation, though they grew concerned when her activism led to government surveillance of her home.

“There was no form of questioning why I went out, because it was a whole team effort. It was a revolution of the people, for the people,” Salah said.

Ayoub and Salah said that they hope the U.N. system would place pressure on the transitional government to include women across all work to rebuild Sudan.

“It’s a priority for us to see the government adoption of this national action plan immediately in order to address participation issues,” Ayoub said. “At the U.N. we have been told that there are bureaucratic hurdles to overcome a lot of this work. But we as women do not see boundaries,” Ayoub said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.