Sudan: women fight gender imbalance in transition

They were on the front lines and in the negotiating rooms that brought down military rule but Sudan's women have yet to take their rightful place in the new institutions.

The signing last week of the documents outlining the transition to civilian rule was a moment of national jubilation, turning the page on 30 years of dictatorship and eight months of deadly protests.

But as the ceremony attended by a host of foreign dignitaries unfolded, one thing jumped out: the only female speaker at the three-hour event was the host.

"That scene was a slap in our face," Rabah Sadeq, a woman activist and longtime campaigner for gender equality, said the next day.

"So many women are talking about this now, we have to raise this issue," she told AFP.

Some women attending the signing heckled the speakers to express their displeasure and the indignation quickly spread to the street and social media.

"The participation of women in the revolution was very high, they even encouraged men to join the demonstrations," said Sarah Ali Ahmed, a student in Khartoum.

"I was very shocked to see the low representation of women...We want to play a role in the civilian government, just like men," she said.

On Wednesday, Sudan's new joint civilian-military ruling body, which is meant to guide the country through 39 months of transition to full civilian rule, was sworn in.

Out of its six civilian members, two are women, although only one was included in the list of nominees initially put forward by the protest camp.

While the opposition alliance's chief negotiator in the run-up to Sudan's landmark political deal was a woman, Ibtisam al-Sanhouri, women were poorly represented in the various negotiating committees.

The shock caused by the all-male line-up at the signing last week, which will go down as a key date in Sudan's history, appears to have had some impact in recent days.

Sudan's new Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, who arrived in the country on Wednesday, raised the issue in his first comments to reporters after being sworn in.

"We have to concentrate on women's participation. Sudanese women played a very big part in our revolution," said the 61-year-old former UN economist.

"But during the negotiations... as well as during the signing of the documents, it was only men. We have to correct this," Hamdok said.

Samahir el-Mubarak, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an independent trade union confederation that played a central role in the protests, argued that women's under-representation was not too surprising.

"This absence in the institutions is not acceptable but it's also understandable in a way," said Mubarak, a 29-year-old pharmacist.

"The organizations and political parties that are active in the transition now have existed all along, and they excluded women.

"But I'm very optimistic this is going to change," she said.

Positive discrimination

The legislative body which is due to be formed soon to help steer the country to democratic elections in 2022 will have at least 40 percent of its seats reserved for women.

"In the condition we are in now, we need some kind of positive discrimination... but eventually women are qualified enough to become a majority in parliament and government," Mubarak said.

Growing awareness over female under-representation in the transition appears already to be bearing fruit, and a woman is now tipped as the next chief justice.

"This is progress but it's still not the level we want. Women should continue to be empowered," Rabah Sadeq said.

Sarah Abdul Laleel, a UK-based paediatrician, agreed that women were insufficiently represented.

"When you compare the street and the protests to the institutions, there's a mismatch," she said.

Abdul Jaleel, also a member of the SPA, said that political parties did not have people's trust and that a debate was needed to find news ways to integrate women in the country's institutions.

Rabah Sadeq argued that parity was in the country's best interest.

"Asking for more women isn't just symbolic; they are more committed to peace. It's not just for equality, it's for the chances of success of this transition," she said.

Samahir el-Mubarak said that after decades of oppression under Bashir's Islamist military regime, women had gained a lot of self-confidence in recent months.

"Women were the dynamo of this revolution; they can't be taken out of the picture. Otherwise there will be another revolution."