KIRUKU: Our new kid is hurting: will the EAC cure Juba’s gender disease?

KIRUKU: Our new kid is hurting: will the EAC cure Juba's gender disease?

By Anne Kiruku, Arusha, Tanzania­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

There’s a new kid on the block in the East African Community; the admission of South Sudan is an indication of the growing influence of the region and its bargaining power vis-a-vis other trading blocs.

The entry of South Sudan gives regional leaders a greater opportunity to bring lasting peace into that country. Although the 2005 peace accord officially ended the war and guaranteed the south the right to secede – which it went ahead to do – widespread euphoria following independence in July 2011 has given way to disappointment, and the expected peace dividends have not materialised.

Violence continues in the disputed territories of Southern Kordofan and Abyei, in addition to the civil war between President Salva Kiir’s forces and those of his Vice President Riek Machar.

Since the referendum results were announced last January, an unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout the disputed territories along the border between north and south. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei and at least 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. These are the victims who have been fleeing violence and civilian targeting by the Khartoum government.

Even as regional leaders focus on the major challenges facing South Sudan, women who are oppressed and marginalised in the country should be accorded special attention so that they can be at par with the rest of the region’s women in economic empowerment and gender equity. This is in recognition of the fact that the challenges that women have had to face elsewhere in the region are similar to those of South Sudan.

As the women of South Sudan join the bloc, a clear message must be sent to the government of President Salva Kiir that the challenges facing women must be tackled with urgency and in accordance with international standards.

Of paramount importance is the insecurity that has led to the death, rape of hundreds of thousands of women, as well as devastating effects upon millions of others. Many South Sudanese, including those living in United Nations camps are experiencing serious cases of insecurity. The government must be told in no uncertain terms that it must bring all atrocities to an end.

Being a highly patriarchal society, women in South Sudan are particularly disadvantaged. They are seen as inferior to men, and stark inequalities between women and men persist. Women have little decision-making power or control over assets.

Violence against women – a crime that should not be tolerated in this day and age – is unfortunately rampant in South Sudan. What makes the matter worse is that possibilities to seek and obtain redress are thoroughly limited. Social acceptability of domestic violence, the difficulties for women in obtaining redress, and the lack of consequences for men are to blame for these escalating incidents.

Many men feel that their wives are their property and therefore they can treat and discipline them as they wish. Increasing alcohol abuse among men, probably the aftermath of the long civil war and subsequent psychological effects, is also to blame for domestic violence.

Gender discrimination in education, governance and appointment to key decision making positions in South Sudan should be brought to an end so as to give women equal opportunities with men. Although gender equality has been recognised and taken into account in the Transitional Constitution and relevant laws, fundamental contradictions remain as customary law, which is considered an important source of law in South Sudan, discriminates against women.

The government must join in the fight against early and forced marriages, which are commonplace. The practice has had severe consequences for the girls concerned. They are taken out of school; have to move in with the husband’s family and carry out domestic chores, and face serious health risks related to early pregnancies.

It is sad that among some communities such as the Dinka, a woman has no right to even sell a goat! Women’s lack of control over assets is not just discriminatory, it is worrying. The Transitional Constitution expressly states that women have the right to own property. However, according to the customary laws of many ethnic groups, a woman cannot own assets since property is held by her husband as the head of the household.

This narrative must change if South Sudan is to join other countries in an equal community of nations that upholds fundamental human rights, including women’s rights.

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