Imagine an all-men tribunal sitting to hear a rape case and the only available woman is the victim seeking justice! For many years, such incidents have occurred in South Sudan, and passed unchallenged.
“In our culture, women are not allowed to talk amongst men. We are going to eradicate this culture and demand to be heard,” said Rachael Lachol Atere, Member of Parliament for Yirol North County.
While looking for places to erect radio Miraya masts to boost the signal in the Eastern Lakes area, women county representatives seized the opportunity to air out their grievances and demand what constitutionally belongs to them.
“In the former assembly our 35% was well represented. I’m even a former deputy speaker. Right now, our constitution is being violated. The governor is male, together with his deputy. Speaker and deputy speaker are males; we are not seeing ourselves represented as women. It should be that when the governor is a male, the deputy should be a woman,” said Priscilla Ayolpol, a women’s representative in Eastern Lakes, Ashambi
Walking across the Lakes area, from the remote areas of Cueibet to Yirol in the East, through Among-Piny in the West and Marper in the North of Rumbek town, you will find women clustered in groups of 10 to 15, chanting and singing songs, with sticks in hand. Yet, their power lies not in the sticks they passionately hold as they sing but, rather, in the unrivaled lyrics of their songs.
The lyrics that urge their husbands to pick up weapons and defend their territories and the same power which mocks those who fail to defend their land.
Yirol North county representative Rachael Lachol Atere re-echoed the capabilities of women saying, “We want people to know that women are even more capable of delivering than men.”
However, there are cultural, religious, social, political and other dynamics that must be addressed for this power to be fully harnessed, according to Priscilla Ayolpol.
“We have a challenge of forced marriages. They are greatly affecting women. We are fighting for this to stop such that we give the girls an opportunity to go to school and later claim what belongs to us,” said Ms. Ayolpol.
UNMISS’ Gender Affairs Officer, Doris Mahoro Sayeedi has always challenged the sitting arrangement during community engagements where women always sit on the floor and at the back while the men sit at the front and on chairs (when available), even when they have nothing to contribute on the current topic of discussion.
“It is such actions that scare women away from contributing towards the peace building and development processes. This is how we miss out on the brilliant ideas and solutions to many of the issues affecting this community,” she said.
The South Sudan constitution allots at least 35% of public positions to women. However, it remains difficult for the women to claim this because of the cultural and social practices that have sidelined them during regional and national debates.
As the country gears towards the forthcoming political period of electing regional and national leaders, women have been encouraged to join political parties in order to claim their 35%. Again, this is hard to achieve because many girls have been pulled out of schools and married off for cows. Also, not many seem to be interested in politics.
The Ashambi legislator, Priscilla Ayolpol, says now they want more than 35%. “We want more. This 35% is not a gift from men, it is our right. Am very sure we are going to achieve it in South Sudan.”
One male legislator who preferred anonymity was quick to note that the 35% is mentioned in the Revitalized South Sudan Peace Agreement but the document does not breakdown how this will be achieved and implemented.