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Last Updated: 06/01/2012Gender Equality and the Human Rights Concern in South Sudan
Peter Reat Gatkuoth
Huma Rights scholar Peter Reat Gatkuoth discusses the continued gender inequality in South Sudan, as well as Africa at large, despite the traditional veneration of women as mothers and caregivers, and the existence of legal documents (including national constitutions) which proclaim the equal rights of women. The author argues that a greater focus on gender equality, using existing human rights documents, will support the development and prosperity of the nation.
The discrimination against women means any distinction, exclusion, restriction or any differential treatment based on sex and whose objectives or effects compromise or destroy the recognition, enjoyment or the exercise by the women regardless of their marital status, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all sphere of life (Heyns et al, 62).
For many centuries, South Sudanese have had their cultural traditional systems, customs, values and beliefs, that have unfortunately devalued gender equality and the recognition of women’s rights in many tribal societies across the country. These traditional systems and beliefs vary across the clans and tribes, and are influenced by the greater African culture, and it is always true that most of the African societies have the belief that women should be highly respected as the mothers. They are the one expected to be cookers, nurturing or socializing the children; and on one hand, their role in society is always been significant in term of negotiation and settlement of dispute as well as taking care of home duties as traditionally assigned tasks.
The concept of considering female as a mother and the caretakers is the main problem and it has devalued their inherited rights, natural rights and neglected their role in political arena. This is obvious because most of individuals who had no experience in human rights system always fought off against the participation of women in politics. Examples of this political negligent behaviour is witnessed in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda and South Sudan itself, where women who participate in political system are indirectly or directly marginalized and mistreated by officials themselves, sometimes to the point of sexual abuse. And in most instances, criminals usually hunt women down on streets, simply to make them quit the politics.
Gender Equality and the recognition of women as normal human beings is nothing in Juba but words of encouragement in the constitutional paper of “political parties’ leadership system.” The SPLM and other political parties (Male dominated patriarchal parties) usually called upon women to come for the rally only when there is an urgent issue and blindfolded them that women have 25% in any employments opportunity; and as well as the decree assignments positions which are political appointee posts. This is true perhaps in most countries in Africa because “the African politics is quite enmeshed in the politics of recognition as are the more familiar examples from other continents” (Nyamnjoh, 56).
The concept of gender equality has gained enough endorsement a long time ago in the Africa continent through the constitutional documents/papers. However, the women’s rights and their participation had been very minimal in practice. After the formation of the African Union and the other intergovernmental institutions; the rights of women and gender equality in term of political participation has been highly acknowledged in most governments’ institutional policies. Therefore, in an attempt to revisit the concept and examine the issue at hands, the scope of this article will argue that, gender equality and human rights of women is yet to be realized in fullest term in Southern Sudanese society. It is, therefore, perhaps realized in the constitutional documents but cultural setback and political patriarchal system still plays a very significant role that aims to eliminate the participation of female career politicians and academia female officials in the country’s politics.
In recent years, there has been a very significant increasing awareness of the status of women’s rights and gender equality in African continent at large. “This awareness is reflected in the Constitutive Act of the African Union and more significantly, in the 2003 adoption of an additional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa”(Heyns, 475). The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women and gender equality in Africa is a ground-breaking women’s right of legal instrument which addressed the fact that women’s participation and freedoms must be accepted and respected without any hesitation in any governments or intergovernmental institutions.
The Protocol “takes the broader and significant view that the economic and social well-being of women is contingent on the rights to equality, health, education and political participation in economic, electoral and customary institutions” (Heyns, 67). This protocol (articles 10-14) is very significant and it serves as a blueprint for African Unity to engage States in revising their national constitutions and to pass the new equality legislation in order to incorporate a more fulsome recognition of gender equality and women’s right in the African governments and institutional systems.
South Sudan, among many states in Africa, is yet to realize in fullest term, the inherited rights of women and gender equality. Women suffer initially and directly through main party’s patriarchal political system that aim to alienate the women, isolated them from political participation and ignore their voices in the political system. One of the good examples was the case of Mrs. Awut Deng, the Minister of Labour who was made to quit and been abused indirectly by the political leaders within the current system. This happened because her voice and experience carried a heavy weight more than the others which lend her much more support from the political society.
The greater support Minister of Labor (Mrs. Awut Deng) has gained from the political society’s members made the SPLM Oyeeee big men to be suspicions for her political progress. The minister got disappointed and quitted simply because she has nothing to do rather than being there as a symbols while she has that much capabilities and capacity, academically to carry on the expectations of the public at large more than the male partners. As noted in many regional human rights systems including the Global Universal Systems, “women have the rights to peaceful existence and the rights to participate in promotion and maintenance of peace in many part of the world and this include, the right to expression and freedom of opinion” (Heyne, 62). The inherited right is not just for the half of the population (male dominated society) in the continents but for all human being equally.
The rights to freedoms: - freedom of political opinion and most importantly the right to political participation, peaceful existence and enjoyments should never be denied to any human being. Women in South Sudanese political system, suffered severely and simply because the traditional believe and customs have made them to be neglected as a part of the population that deal with certain roles such as nurturing, home duties or socialization of children (but isn’t the mother who become a female politicians- the mother whom we call “the mother regardless of sex?”). “Promotion of women” to perform and participate in the issue facing society is not only the recognition of their rights, but it is for the encouragement of mutual understanding and respect of the dignity of the human kind within the biggest frame, whereby gender equality discourse has to be realized and incorporated to the political system and institutional instruments appropriately.
Doing so, will help the victims (women) to survive and seek justice when they are discriminated base on political differences and sex. It is perhaps true that in South Sudan, women are seen to be more politically submissive (fear of male aggression) in the system and this is very regrettable that imbalance peace in society that came without justice can merely replicate broader social inequality and division within the gendered society in some ways, which will initially make us stuck in negative peace level. South Sudan lacks and will always ignore, if not contained well, the problem that violation of human rights and political abuse are taking places in some areas because the states/federal policy or institutional system at large does not strongly address this social concerns and inequalities. “There will always be a lack of access to seek appropriate justice which may aims to recapture the sense of harmony and forgiveness while moving on” (McGregor, 5). Women plus all scholars and academia will suffer deeply because of lack of due process in justice and as well as in the institutional system and regulations.
The traditional political system and customs in South Sudan that is rooted in patriarchal and patrilineal system has de-emphasized the role of women, academia and scholars in South Sudan society, be it in government or inter-governmental institutions that operate within the South Sudan. It should be noted that most of these customs and beliefs are result of the perceived inferior status of male domination, particular the SPLM born to rule big men and at the time, supposed worthlessness of women, academia and scholars; yet the society (patriarchy) wish to encourage this traditional ways of eliminating the women in the political systems as a way to justifies their domination in the institutional systems. When the African Union and other international organizations were formed, women in the world had opportunities to challenge the customs and their own cultural norms or believe that seem to discriminate them from daily activities. In this perspective, “the universal human rights law (regional or international) has becomes the substitute for traditional customs and beliefs that results to the establishment of the minimum standard of decency or treatment; a common denominator of what is morally acceptable in a civilized world” (Askin, 629).
Gender equality and the recognition of inherited rights of women would take few more years in South Sudan to effect. Although the international community expectations was high that South Sudan should have learnt from the examples of other states in Africa; it is very impossible, regrettable or difficult for the gender equality to be accepted or incorporated smoothly in the system, simply because of patriarchal orientations within the society and within the born to rule political system. The women in South Sudan parliament have ministers, few MPs representatives including the advisor for gender affairs but their voices are not counted to any outgoing concern or in the system, be it political, economic or social matters.
Past experiences in South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda and in many parts of the world had indicated that gender equality and the promotion of women’s right would have been the best options for South Sudanese people who had just emerged from war torn environment as this community had endured injustice, atrocities and violent within the country together. Leaving the women behind without acceptance and proper integration of gender balance or consideration of gender equality would initially ruins, risk or setback the smooth democracy transition because women plus academia officials and scholars by themselves have a big role to play politically and socially in the South Sudanese contemporary society and in the international level to inform and influence the other within the international community at large about the ongoing violation of human rights.
South Sudanese should familiarize themselves with the regional human rights instruments (African Commission for Human and people’s Rights, the Banjul rights) that had highlighted the concern of women in details. The protocol to African Charter on Human and people’s rights on the rights of women does not only encourage the promotion of the women’s participation in politics but it guarantee a very important “non-derogable rights that include rights to be free from racial and political discrimination, the right not to be torture or enslave and the rights to be free from crime against humanity and genocide” (Askin, 628).
These rights are more important in regard to the life of woman and to the implementation of justice and national system that care much for all human kind. By then, this system of human right, if contained or established well in the institutions of South Sudan, it would have help to reduce the discrimination against women within the society at large. Otherwise, it will be true that political recognition based on the male bias of using the logic of cultural relativist arguments in South Sudan had added more value that is attached to patriarchal and male domination policy in society in order to detriment of females. “This belief that boys are inherently more valuable than girls is not only negatively affecting the women or the girl-child’s health, education and psychological well-being but also commonly results in her social and psychological depression or death in some circumstances” (Askin, 630).
Although South Sudanese societal traditional system is significantly valuable to their lives and customs in term of managing some societal disputes; the role of women by then is not that important in political systems and also in the local grass-route. It’s off course the people’s culture but when it comes to the reality, women are much more disadvantaging socially, politically and economically in the society while they are part of the greater community. The female child is usually not considered important with exception of cultural investment concept and this leads into unfair treatment and gender inequalities within the community. The politics of female recognition within communities is known to be “one of those felicitous phrases and it resonated with other political, economic and cultural trends that fully alienated them” (Nyamnjoh, 15). Therefore, this fact illustrated that some communities within South Sudan have had isolated ladies and use girls only as liability or an investment income for families in the future. The States or federal constitutions of South Sudan had not address this issue appropriately, and they do not make any attempt to adequately define each customs and examines its relevance to women in particular within the society.
Since the country became an international subject on July 9/2012, it worth to revisit the international human rights instruments that govern the international community and beyond. The Vienna Declaration, adopted in 1993 U.N. world conference “state that all human rights: civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural aspects should be implemented simultaneously and that neither set of rights should take precedence over the others.” These rights include freedom to “sexual and reproductive health” but South Sudanese traditional belief lies on the fact that women should reproduce more kids even if they are not willing or unhealthy. The choice and freedom to control their fertility is not always a women’s choice in society especially in local rural community areas. Men always wish the wife to have more kids and if the women choose to control their fertility, it may be a ground for divorce. If these rights are to effect and result into practice, then the South Sudanese national human rights commissions and other organizations working on women’s rights must mobilize the people in rural communities and in the villages to “respect the rights of women” (Heyne, 62).
The demands base on cultural perspective in South Sudanese community had put the women in the position of the second class citizens for so long as their specific rights and need are not addressed strongly and accordingly in the institutions or in the government departments. Although the constitutional had models and modernized the structure of the society in the document, there is still much more gap in practice to be looked at in order to tackle all these pressing social issues. Therefore, for the society to stand tall against the discrimination and gender inequality, they should not only implement the gender equality on paper but in a more practical ways because eliminating discrimination required the combating of traditions, customs and usages which thwart the advancement of women in society.
The constitution seems to address and highlighted the issue partially that there is no excuse for policies or practices that are harmful to women but to the great extends of my doubts; the discriminatory customary act and traditional practices remain prevalent in South Sudan, thus preventing women from inheriting or acquiring the same rights enjoyed by men. My experience in South Sudan tells me that women had a long ways to go in South Sudan society; it doesn’t matter what level they reach educationally. “Breaking tradition, defying custom and overcoming the discrimination, requires courage and democratic leadership.
Leaders that bent on effecting change must develop a new vision of South Sudan while accepting inclusive contribution and participation from those who had once gained academic experiences, skills and international human Rights discourse. “A leader that is willing to bring change in South Sudan must articulate the problems of the status quo and create a new theory of social and political order and over time, must mobilize a critical mass of supporters from the qualify people who share the new vision for the people and new articulation of the problems” (Fraser, 855). South Sudanese would be better off only if they involve women, scholars and the community members at large in the institutional and constitutional design (democracy perceptions) regardless of tribes and political affiliation. Doing so will give the people an opportunity to stand together and in harmony in creating policy that aims to condemn the act of gender inequality and gender violent. This will also reduce the gender discrimination and allow the women to feel more comfortable and fit in to the government system and in society.
Subsequently, South Sudan will be a rich nation as it may be in term of resources but facts tell us that there will always be a lot of gender grievance and violence due to the lack of human rights considerations, respect of human value and human kind. The rights to be free from political injustices and traditional maltreatments would not just disappear simply without launching a strong institutional policy that involves the communities in a people-driven agenda. A nation could be well economically developed but if respect of human dignity and freedom of political opinions and expression are not respected and contained well, people will always live with grievances and unhappiness, socially and politically. The new country should learn from the old African states and condemn the gender inequalities, political abuse and political assassination of the opposition leaders, violence and other brutal or humiliating treatment. The reality indicated that there is no better system in the world without consideration of the above social pressing issue of human rights and human dignity. The human rights in South Sudan had never been well established. Establishment of recognizable human rights system should help the entire society instead of chanting daily with the slogan of freedoms and human rights that had no strong bases and support in the system.
Verbal condemnation of gender inequalities and discrimination does not do much to help the women in South Sudanese society. Simply because it is just by words from the leader and it will always reveal a shared disquiet that the voice of those affected through the patriarchal political discrimination and political system of born-to-rule men are not always heard or accorded “an adequate weight in the systems” (McGregor, 2). This is true because the constitution in South Sudan had not clearly laid out the legal consequences, or availible legal actions, and it does not put in place sufficiently robust legal mechanisms for the protection and freedom of all people regardless of gender. Therefore, it worth to argue constructively that the gender equality and human rights of women or generally the rights of the people is yet to be realized in fullest term in Southern Sudan society. It is, therefore, been implemented and realized perhaps in the documents but cultural setback and the political patriarchal system still plays a very significant role that aims to eliminate the women’s freedom of political opinion and participation of female career politicians in the country’s politics.
Askin, Kelly D. Women and International Human Rights Law. Volume 1, Transitional Inc., New York, 1999.
Heyns, Christof et al. Compendium of Key Human Rights Documents of the African Union. 4thed. Pulp, South Africa, 2010
Nyamnjoh, Francis B. Rights and the Politics of Recognition in Africa. Zed books, London, 2004
Fraser, Arvonne S., Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women's Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly 21.4 (1999) 853-906
McGregor, McEvoy. Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change. Oxford, New York, 2008
Peter Reat Gatkuoth hold BA in sociology and Political Science, he has just graduated with Master Degree in the school of International Law and Human Rights. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org