South Sudan’s Women: Building the World’s Newest Nation

At a D.C. conference South Sudan women help develop solutions for challenges facing their new nation. By Swanee Hunt.

Seven women from seven states in South Sudan arrived in Washington, D.C., on Sunday night—just five months after their country had become the world’s newest nation. They came carrying much more than their luggage. They were carrying a vision.

South Sudan’s women played a vital role in the founding of their country. During the war, they fought in the bush. They reached out to the women on the other side. With no other place to meet, they gathered under trees beside the river and started the dialogue that would form the basis for the peace. Some of them negotiated the agreement that ended the war. And women cast the majority of votes in both the election (60 percent) and the referendum for a nonviolent split from Sudan (52 percent).

Monday and Tuesday, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work on their next challenge. The delegation of South Sudanese women began crafting their messages regarding national priorities, to be presented at the International Engagement Conference (IEC) on Wednesday and Thursday.

This strategy session was part of the Gender Symposium co-hosted by U.N. Women and the Institute for Inclusive Security, in collaboration with the governments of South Sudan and the U.S. The purpose of the symposium was to make sure women’s voices are heard by the 500 attendees of the IEC, and that the women were poised for maximum impact.

The International Engagement Conference is pivotal for the new nation, because it marks the first time since South Sudan’s independence that the global community has gathered to discuss the country’s development. South Sudan is defining how it will manage petroleum revenues, deliver services like health care and education, attract foreign investors, and strengthen the private sector.

For once, women didn’t have to fight to get in the door. At previous conferences, including the Afghanistan meeting in Bonn, Germany, last week, women had to push hard to get a seat at the table. This week, the U.S. government, acting as the host, issued an official pass to each of the South Sudanese women. The women were given a speaking slot on opening day—in fact just before Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group.

Dr. Pricilla Nyangyang Makuac, South Sudan’s deputy minister of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare, and a member of the Women Waging Peace Network (part of the Institute for Inclusive Security), joined the working session Tuesday. She framed the importance of the women’s contributions to the IEC: “Its women who fought for independence. It’s our country. We made it. Now, when it’s time for South Sudan to tell the world, ‘Here we are’…women need to be there. In this development plan, we should be able to see ourselves.”

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, the women emerged with clearly-defined solutions for the formidable challenges facing their country. They prioritized four steps that, if taken, would put the rest of the development plan on a fast track:

• Banking: Start-up funding of a minimum of $10 million for a “Women’s Bank.” Since most banks require collateral and most women don’t own property, it’s essential to have a bank that provides low-interest loans to women, accepting social collateral (where women as a group guarantee that if one defaults the others will pay).

• Agricultural support: Ensuring that 25 percent of agricultural investment is targeted toward women farmers. In South Sudan, 85 percent of the population works in or depends on agriculture—and the vast majority of farmers are women. To grow the economy, women need access to credit for modern equipment and training to know how to use it. They also need a voice in land rights and decisions to build feeder roads that make it possible to get their goods to market.

• Literacy: Doubling the number of adult women who are literate by 2014. Right now, only a staggering 12 percent of adult women can read and write. In some states it’s as low as 3 percent. It takes six months to make a woman functionally literate.

• Oil revenues: Making certain that half the community development funds that come from oil revenue are allocated to women’s health, education, economic well-being, and physical security. Now that South Sudan has full control over its vast resources, women want to be sure all citizens share in the wealth and avoid the dependency inherent in the “resource curse.”

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On Wednesday, they stood before the international community in red scarves (inspired by the Afghan women who wore green ones in Germany) to raise their voices and their profiles. It worked. “They made a huge splash today,” says Jacqueline O’Neill, director of the Institute for Inclusive Security. “The narrative of this event is that the U.S. has set precedence for conferences where post-conflict nations market themselves to donors and investors.”

Beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the morning, almost every speaker at the conference referenced the women’s clarity, their forcefulness, and the sensibility of their agenda. Notables from Norway and other countries, the U.N. and World Bank, and the administrator of U.S. AID (the United States’s huge foreign aid agency) reinforced the central message repeatedly: Our entire development plan isn’t going to work unless we have women side by side.

But words are only words. Of the 29 members of the new South Sudanese cabinet, only four are women. Still, a new threshold of international awareness seems to have been reached. The message to the South Sudanese is: You’re a new country, so you have a chance to get this right. That includes not marginalizing women.

By the end of the day, Obiageli Ezekwesili, vice president for the World Bank Group Africa Region, offered the crowd a benediction to the cause of women’s centrality to the stability of this fragile new state. “Is there anyone here who still doesn’t get it?”