“Now that the revolution began two years ago, what I remember most are the faces of the women who, although they could not go out to demonstrate because they were old or had small children, left the doors of their houses open so that the rest of us could take refuge from police beatings and tear gas, ”says activist Sheenaz El Zain on the other end of the video call.
In December 2018, thousands of people took to the streets of Khartoum , the capital of Sudan, to demand the resignation of President Omar Al-Bashir, in power since 1989.
It was the start of a revolution that ended up overthrowing the regime and made viral images of women singing for freedom and defying the law.
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Women and mothers: essential, but forgotten Two years later, the activists demand structural changes that go a step beyond the mere presence of women in the Government. They ask to define the priorities of the political agenda of the new Sudan.
“Everyone knows that, without women, the revolution would not have been possible, but few remember. That is why we continue to demand what we deserve ”, says El Zain.
Since the beginning of the transition in August 2019, the Government has made decisions focused on gender equality such as the criminalization of female genital mutilation , which according to UNICEF affects 86.6% of Sudanese women, or the repeal of a law that prohibited women from wearing pants, traveling alone, or dancing in public.
A few weeks ago it announced that it will ban child marriage, which affects 34% of girls under 18 years of age. The spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s office, Natalina Yacoub, assures: “The new Government works for peace, justice and freedom, and that means putting women as a priority.”
He believes that it will be difficult to reform the country because the laws of the previous regime systematically disparaged women. “They have taught us to be ashamed, not to speak, to be afraid, to tell ourselves that we couldn’t or shouldn’t,” she explains.
The truth is that the government of technocrat Abdalla Hamdok is working against the clock to transform and stabilize the country before the democratic elections scheduled for 2022. Its main challenges are to dismantle the corruption system established by Al-Bashir, reform the judicial system and manage the deep economic crisis.
The country has lived through a year of extreme fragility: the army quelled an attempted coup in January, the prime minister survived an attack in March , Darfur has seen an escalation of violence since July and, in the streets, the Sudanese they continue to call for greater democratic reforms as they face the pandemic.
Furthermore, in recent weeks, the conflict in theEthiopia’s Tigray region has forced 50,000 people, most of them women and children, to take refuge in Sudan, a number that adds to the one million refugees already residing in the country, according to UNHCR .
At the beginning of the transition, the main demand of women was to have decision-making positions in the institutions. Currently, of the 11 members of the Sovereign Council , the civic-military body that holds the head of State, two are women.
Aisha Moussa, linguist and activist, and Judge Raja Nicola Abdel-Masih, the first Coptic Christian to have a high position in the political system of Sudan. In the Government, four of the 20 ministries are led by women; such as Finance or Labor and Social Development.
Although she acknowledges the government’s work to include more women, the activist Hamadelneil believes that they should “begin to approve policies with a gender perspective and prepare society for a new context in which women make more decisions.”
Hamadelneil was the only woman who participated in the elaboration of the Constitutional Declaration , which functions as a legal framework in the transition period, and closely follows the debates on the role of women.
One of the most controversial points has been the appointment of the 18 civil governors corresponding to each state of the country. According to El Zain, at first no woman was chosen despite the fact that all the candidates had extensive professional careers.
Later the prime minister appointed two women, and even so, the more conservative communities showed their discontent. “It is difficult for women to develop a political career if there are no spaces for us, that is why I say to political parties and the government: what are you doing to remove obstacles and offer us opportunities?” El Zain asks.
It is difficult for women to develop a political career if there are no spaces for us
Despite having achieved a certain space, El Zain believes “that the governors will have a difficult time because they will work with men with a patriarchal mentality who will not respect their criteria.” The activists believe that the government still has many pending decisions to pave the way for equality.
According to Hamadelneil, the next step should be to sign and ratify CEDAW and the Maputo protocol , two international conventions that would oblige the government to eliminate any type of discrimination against women.
The transition reached a climax a few months ago when the government and representatives of armed groups and civil society from conflict zones – Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and the eastern states – reached a peace agreement .
In addition to opening avenues for reconciliation, the agreements guarantee the political participation of communities discriminated against by the Al-Bashir regime, including specific quotas for women.
According to the organization Action for the Rights of Women in Sudan ( SUWRA), the negotiations have included the participation of women from the armed groups, as well as up to 19 women human rights activists. However, Hamadelneil denounces that there was no woman as a representative of the Government and that “goes against the Constitutional Declaration.”
SUWRA activists explain that, for the first time, the peace accords include a gender perspective both in the use of inclusive language in the text and in recognizing the rights of women, especially those who have lived through situations of “slavery. and exploitation ”.
However, they point out that women are associated with “technical positions” and fear that this could divert them from decision-making processes.
Furthermore, they regret that measures are not taken to promote the economic independence of women who have become widows as a result of the conflict and cannot inherit their family’s lands because property law discriminates against them.
On the other hand, from SUWRA they point out that the agreements recognize the separation between the State and religion, which could be a starting point to end the “racist and discriminatory” dynamics that non-Muslim communities and black people have suffered during the old regime.
This is the case of women in Darfur, in the west of the country, who have faced situations of systematic sexual violence since the beginning of the conflict in 2003, one of the accusations that have brought Al-Bashir before the International Criminal Court .
Our mothers, aunts and grandmothers have spent 30 years fighting for the revolution to come true, enduring humiliation and even jail
Another community that has participated in the peace accords is that of the Nuba Mountains, in the state of South Kordofan. Precisely the spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s office, Natalina Yacoub, has been activism for years in favor of the rights of the Nuba peoples.
He feels optimistic because “despite belonging to a discriminated community, he is working for the Government and even speaking as a spokesman, something that would have been unthinkable before.”
Hamadelneil and El Zain point out that the transformation of Sudan is not only an achievement of the 2019 revolution, but of a resistance strategy that was woven over decades despite Al-Bashir.
On the streets it was common to see women wearing pants, some with hijabs and others showing off their hair, at the risk of being arrested for breaking the law. “Every time I left the house it was a challenge, but there have always been many women who have dared to wear pants and face the police. That was also making revolution, ”recalls Sara Karrar, who works as a consultant in Khartoum.
We have been waiting all our lives for this moment and we are not going to allow ourselves to be put aside again with the excuse that they are not things for women
Karrara says that Sudan is evolving because it can do “things that were previously impossible,” like traveling abroad with her daughter without her ex-husband’s permission.
She hopes that in the coming months the government will be able to control the economic crisis that has suffocated the country for years and, finally, focus on ending discrimination against women. El Zain wants the revolution not to be forgotten.
“Our mothers, aunts and grandmothers have spent 30 years fighting for the revolution to come true, enduring humiliation and even jail. We have been waiting all our lives for this moment and we are not going to allow ourselves to be put aside again with the excuse that they are not things for women ”.