When Southern Sudanese from all walks of life went to the polls from January 9 to 15 to cast their vote in an independence referendum, differences between tribes, socioeconomic classes, and gender were cast aside. Former refugees in Cairo, diplomats in London, hotel staff in Nebraska, mothers of eight and 12 in small villages across the south—all of these Southern Sudanese people were united in what has been referred to as the south’s “Final Walk to Freedom.” More than half of the nearly four million registered voters—in Sudan and in the eight countries where diaspora voting took place—were women. Just over a week ago, across the Afghanistan-sized south, women stood in long lines under blazing sun to cast their votes.
The oldest known voter, Rebecca Kadi Loburang Dinduch, who thinks she is about 115 years old, praised God after casting her vote in the Southern Sudanese capital of Juba, saying if she died now she would be happy because her people would soon be free. Young voters like secondary school student Susan Riak, 19, said she’s proud to be Southern Sudanese and proud of this moment in her people's history. Waiting in line to vote in the University of Juba’s chemistry lab, where a polling station had been set up in between rows of sinks with broken taps, Riak said she thinks independence “will change everything.”
This month’s long-anticipated and hard-won vote was a moment of triumph for Southern Sudan, and the mood of optimism that pervaded Juba during the weeklong vote was a marked change from normal life here, where making ends meet every day is a challenge for most people.
The south’s self-determination vote came as part of a landmark peace deal in 2005 that ended the most recent war between north and south, but the fight for southern respect and autonomy is arguably centuries old. Women have been a part of this struggle, some as armed combatants in the two north-south civil wars fought since Sudan gained independence in 1956, many as supporters of the southern rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Women cooked for soldiers, volunteered as porters, and took care of children in refugee camps in Ethiopia where young new soldiers were recruited and trained.
“We were always getting beaten and having our huts burned,” a slight but wizened woman told me last fall as she stood in her small field of maize in Lakes state—a place where cattle-keeping dominates most aspects of life, from marriage dowries and inheritance to coming-of-age rituals.
But during the seven days of polling, when southerners solemnly and proudly made the choice of their lifetimes, the feeling was different.
“This vote has made me feel free,” remarked Mary Chan, 41, a cleaner for an international non-governmental organization based in Juba. “I haven’t been to school, but I voted because we all want freedom. My husband and I, we want our children to go to school. Their lives will be different than ours.” During the first days of voting, long lines of women like Chan waited in the baking sun for hours on end, wanting to be among the first to cast freedom votes. Some women ululated and jumped after dropping their ballots in the plastic boxes, while at one station in Juba, a man led the crowd in an impromptu chorus of ‘Hallelujah.’
"I am very happy because we are going to get our independence. Bye bye, enough," Mary Atong, 45, a mother of four said after casting her vote, saying she knew secession would be the outcome of the referendum.
For many Southern Sudanese women who endured decades of war, the referendum has offered the prospect of sustainable peace in their homeland. While the war was raging, Dolly Odwong, a women’s rights activist who spent much of the war in Juba—which was a northern Sudanese army garrison town during the war—remembers that she and other women activists “focused on peace while everyone was focused on fighting. No one thought it would come,” she recalls.
Odwong held trainings in what is now the southern capital while aerial bombardments by the Sudanese Armed Forces rained down outside. "Every day there was trauma," she says. "There was fear. My son almost drown in the [Nile] river. I hid him near the riverside but he ran into the water. He couldn’t swim. When the bombs fell in the hospital [in Juba], most of the men were in the battlefield. So it was mostly women and children. You know, this secession—let me tell you. Independence. We are not thinking about it in terms of Southern Sudan is going to be rich. Everyone wants independence to come because in our hearts we feel we are going to have freedom in our places. For so long, any time, we have expected that there will be bombing again. Now we think this is the end, and we won’t go back to the bush. The coming generation will not feel the way we felt. We don’t want them running the way we were running. And hiding.
Because when the war started everybody had to run and hide from the raids. It was a real trauma. In the bush people died on the way because they were hungry.”
The stark difference between war and peace has been evident in the south since the 2005 peace deal was signed, but cattle-raiding, intercommunal violence, and violence against women are a few of the many challenges that the nascent southern government will have to confront in the years ahead.
And the human rights situation in the south is not as positive as Southern Sudanese officials suggest. “Women are free in the south, it is not like the north!” the southern government’s minister of internal affairs told me before referendum voting began. While this may be true on paper—in the south’s interim constitution and in police training handbooks—it did not hold true in practice in the weeks before the January referendum, when more than 5,000 newly trained police were deployed in the Southern Sudanese capital of Juba. Although many were well-behaved, some new officers inflicted physical punishment upon women who were wearing jeans, sleeveless tops, or who had braided “Rasta”-style dreadlocks.
It would be inaccurate to compare the punishment endured by women in the south due to customary law practices with the uniform harshness of Sharia law meted upon women in northern Sudan. Under Sharia law, ill-disciplined security forces continue to arbitrarily harass women for poorly defined crimes, including wearing pants.
Yet human rights experts agree that equal respect and rights for women are not ingrained in the cultures of any of the south’s multitude of ethnic groups. “In Southern Sudan, most tribes live by traditions and customs that are inherently discriminatory against women and girls,” says Jehanne Henry, who leads Human Rights Watch’s research on Sudan, noting that traditional practices among many groups “clearly erode the basic rights of women and girls.” A combination of factors impede women’s rights in Southern Sudan, and Henry says that “human rights advocates in Southern Sudan will have to work very hard in coming years to start to change these practices and bring social practice in line with the basic rights that the constitution guarantees to all citizens.”
Anyieth D’Awol is a Southern Sudanese human rights activist, lawyer, and the founder of a women’s empowerment group that enables women to support themselves by making crafts and jewelry. She said that although the recent weeks should be a time of celebration for the people of Southern Sudan, the referendum period has been tinged with the mistreatment of women by southern security forces, which bodes poorly for the future of women’s rights in an independent south. D’Awol said that a key problem with the newly trained police—who may well become the backbone of a new federal force after Southern Sudan declares independence in July—is that there is a lack of clarity in all respects about their role, about how they were trained, what laws they are following, and how complaints can be filed against them for violations they seem to be committing indiscriminately.
D’Awol, who has cropped, neat braids and often wears jeans, says the behavior of the police made her wonder, “Who is the enemy?” and why she should be targeted as an upstanding southern citizen who should be free to dress as she chooses. D’Awol says that southerners will “have to think of ways to make [ourselves] one,” since different identities—based on tribes and on how one participated (or not) in the wars—have fractured the notion of a unified south, even in the years since war has ended.
Despite the challenges ahead as the south forges a collective identity and works to build a new nation-state, there is reason for optimism when one listens to the words of every day Southern Sudanese women when they speak about their independence vote.
“I am now okay,” says Amelia Paul, 47, as she exited a polling station at the University of Juba, her index finger dyed blue to show she had cast her vote; her thumb stained with the ink used to make a thumbprint in a circle on the ballot that indicates a vote for ‘secession.’ “I was tired. We lost all our parents; we are suffering. That is why we will separate.”
Southerners have longed for this moment. And as tallying of the votes from the referendum continues, the writing is on the wall: Southerners turned out in droves and voted overwhelmingly for secession.
As the south looks toward July, when it will declare independence, it is clear that it will take years for democratic and inclusive principles to take root. International support for locally driven initiatives is needed to build on the optimism of the referendum and empower women as future leaders of their country.