“As Sudanese women and girls, we have been absent. This is the way we are raised. In a traditional society, we feel politics is not for us. All the time we think and feel this, that this is for men. I knew something needed to be done. So I thought, I will try, I will try to break these taboos. As women, we deserve to be heard.” — Roaa Bakri Bilal, women’s rights activist and aspiring politician, North Khartoum
When Sudan’s transitional government formed in August 2019, swept in by a women and youth-led revolution, it promised a new era of rights for the nation’s 21 million women.
Laws restricting freedom of dress, movement and work were repealed. Female genital mutilation was criminalized. And 40 percent female representation in the 300-seat Transitional Legislative Council (a temporary parliament-type body) was enshrined in the transitional constitution.
The views of Roaa, and others like her, the representation offers an opportunity.
“This is a time for change,” says Nema Fadul Dawood, an aspiring council representative and women’s rights activist in East Darfur, “and we the women of Sudan need to seize this opportunity following years of societal and cultural restrictions.”
To ensure this and allow for Sudan’s current political situation, specific mechanisms are required. “Quotas are the most effective mechanism for increasing women’s political participation,” says UNDP Sudan’s Gender Advisor Zaynab Elsawi. “In Sudan, with elections scheduled for 2022, for now it means 120 seats allocated by political parties, divided with the same party representation as the Transition Government.”
The constitution requires 120 women to fill these seats. A history of limited female political participation and claims of insufficient candidates poses a challenge: Finding Sudan’s future female political leaders.
An early 2020 UNDP exercise aimed to promote political participation and identify and train possible candidates. Visiting 110 cities, villages and internally displaced person camps over six weeks, 11 teams from the Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups, and the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development , identified 1,070 women, two-thirds under the age of 40, willing to represent their communities.
Now registered for future training and engagement, the high numbers provide an opportunity to improve representation elsewhere. As a result, the project has expanded — supporting women to secure other national- and state-level representation, and key government posts.
Though, as Nema explains, these numbers do not tell the full story:
“We the women of Sudan need to seize the opportunity to combat negative discrimination surrounding the role of women in the society. We also have family commitments. In addition, sometimes, we as women are sometimes not prepared, we have never done anything similar before and the experience could be daunting, not to mention that sometimes even the political parties we represent are not keen on us.”
And, beyond the larger challenges of discrimination and political inexperience come practical ones. Women taking part indicated a lack of available training for critically needed skills like public speaking or accessing legislation. Concerns around travel expenses, childcare and security were also raised.
But, with a passion for change, the goal is achievable for Nema and Roaa.
“The proposal for 40 percent participation brings up the immediate question, are we as women prepared to lead politically?” asks Roaa. “This is the immediate question others will ask. This is why we need to be prepared. I truly feel that women are the forces of change in any society and that’s why I wish to run for parliament.”
A chemist by profession and women’s rights activist by passion, Roaa played a key role in her local resistance committee during the revolution and has strong aspirations for young women. Both traits she intends to bring to the Transitional Legislative Council.
“Even during this COVID-19 crisis, women have proven to be more responsible than men in adhering to the restrictions,” says Roaa. “This is how we always have been; we do things the hard way. Sudanese women must first believe in themselves and in each other, and do their best to support each other, and continue thinking outside of the box. We will then be unstoppable.”
While the first steps have been taken, training for successful candidates awaits the formation of the council. This is expected after the national peace agreement is signed.
The person who knows success is inevitable is Mustafa Khamid, one of the project’s researchers in South Darfur. Talking to hundreds of interested candidates, he knows their determination.
“Ardently filling in the forms, requesting more lectures, and more support to empower their capacities in voluntary public work,” is how he describes the women, “they would say to us ‘please come tomorrow, I will call all my neighbors, bring them and come again and listen’.”
With women making up less than one in five parliamentarians globally, the 40 percent representation offers a significant role for women in Sudan’s leadership, legislation, oversight and governance — key areas of UNDP’s focus for Sudan’s transition.
“Claims there aren’t enough qualified women in Sudan are simply not true,” says UNDP Sudan’s Resident Representative Selva Ramachandran.
“The women of Sudan are fearless and already bring much needed resilience to Sudan’s Government. For UNDP, helping connect the dots was a natural thing to do; women and their voices are the building blocks of a new Sudan.”
The project was carried out national NGO’s Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups (MANSAM), and the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (SORD). As part of support for women’s rights and participation, and Sudan’s transition and governance, this work was made possible with UNDP technical support and core (regular) funding, provided by a number of contributing nations. Core resources allow UNDP to enable coordinated, flexible, and rapid responses to development needs.
Photos: UNDP Sudan/Will Seal