Negotiating security: Gender, violence and the rule of law in post- war South Sudan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

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Introduction The end of the two-decade-long north-south civil war in Sudan in 2005 brought expressions of hope from soldiers and civilians that stability and security both at individual and community levels would prevail. South Sudan responded to the creation of a neoliberal state with euphoria and a sense of triumph. The post-war government, with its national and state legislative assemblies, the passing of the interim national constitution and the interim constitution of South Sudan, the establishment of the judiciary and the training of the police force are all a symbol of a new security, legal and political order. In particular, women and other marginalized groups who had been most affected by the war received this new order with elation. Security was the peace dividend most expected to accrue immediately. However, five years into the peace agreement, the emerging system of government and the legal framework that undergirds it fell disastrously short of providing protection to all citizens. The entire justice system, the deeply rooted cultural practices in many South Sudanese communities and the legacy of the war itself all compounded to limit women’s access to security and to the protection of the law. In the post-war era, the new government promised to pursue a form of the security agenda that Sudanese civil society groups, such as the Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace, international human rights agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had advocated during the course of the war. Such security agenda focused on strengthening institutions of law in order to ensure a transparent justice system and to develop a culture of respect for human and civil rights. The Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) and the Government of National Unity (GoNU) established a presidential advisor position on gender and human rights, created a ministry for family and social welfare, and above all, instituted affirmative action policy to guarantee at least 25 percent of government positions and parliamentary seats to women. These changes, endorsed in the 2005 interim constitution, represented strong signals to a commitment to end women’s exclusion from political decision making. Such steps also indicated that violence against women, in the form of physical abuse or the failure of the justice system to protect women’s rights, would no longer be tolerated. The constitution clearly spells out the equality of the Sudanese people regardless of race, ethnicity, religious orientation and gender. Optimistic commentators stated that some of the greatest impediments to building a viable neoliberal state had been removed: war was replaced by peace, gender inequity was being redressed and the new justice system had replaced the near lawlessness of wartime. Government officials were quick to announce these developments as the peace dividends long awaited to promote the protection of basic human and civil rights and to make peace and stability the “foundations of a New Sudan” (Garang, 1989).1 In this article, I argue that as a matter of policy, these were the right steps, but the policies did not translate into practice. Evidence presented in this article suggests that the notion of a simple transition from war and conflict to peace, security and equitable implementation of the law does not easily lend itself to the realities of ordinary people, especially women. The formal end of conflict is not a shift of violence from war to domestic spheres and other forms of institutional and structural violence.2 The experiences of women’s groups and other marginalized sectors of Sudanese society, however, suggest that the cessation of armed conflict between warring parties in the north and south may not mean the end of socially rooted violence and other forms of insecurities. Although the government and other interested agencies maintain that the idea of universal security is an achievable goal after the end of the war, ethnographic evidence from various sources suggests that the deeply rooted genderbased violence is the norm rather than the exception. Such insecurities militate against equity in access to legal protection, and exacerbate the impact of war on women (Jok, 1998; Fitzgerald, 2002).3 Thus the state pronouncement of commitment to equitable provision of security, which does not address sociocultural roots of gendered violence, has not granted women security in practice. I argue that the official discourse on security does not appear to translate into legal practices of safety and protection for Sudanese women. Although elite women may benefit more from such legislation, poor women on the peripheries in the south, the northeast and Darfur are caught in between the claims of progress made through affirmative action policies on the one hand, and deeply rooted ideas about women’s subordinate status in society on the other. This environment reveals how the women’s movement, the government and other marginalized groups negotiate the process of equal protection and security to ensure their safety and inclusion. In this chapter I show that despite the myriad odds against women’s access to protection, various women’s associations and women-led civil society groups are dedicated to hold government accountable and to ensure women’s full participation in governance and decision-making processes. There is no question that many women will continue to live with violence, whether it is state violence, domestic violence or exclusion from government institutions, but it can no longer be said that these women are helpless victims. In this chapter, I look at the nature of inequitable application of the legal system in post-war South Sudan. I will contextualize this inequitable use of the justice system within a broad history of the war, highlighting the role of gendered socialization, the role of the state in the persistence of violence against women, the reproduction of that violence within the communities long affected by the conflict and the failure of the state to provide equal protection according to the new laws stipulated in the immediate post-war period. Using interviews, participant-observation and other material collected since 1993 from various locations in South Sudan, mainly in Lakes, Western Bahr el-Ghazal, Northern Bahr el-Ghazla and Warrap states, I argue that some gendered insecurities and injustices, though magnified by the protracted north-south conflict, actually predated the war. They are built upon deeply rooted socialization practices that differentiate between men and women. Such gendered insecurities are also related to the way that the peace agreement was reached-a process that excluded women’s voices. The end of the armed conflict itself actually intensified certain forms of insecurity, especially domestic violence, which increased with the return of the combatants from war fronts. But blaming the conflict for every social ill glosses over the cultural injustices and inequities rooted in gendered social relations and the construction of femininity and masculinity. It is important to assert that unless such gender disparities are challenged at the level of cultural practices in the process of establishing equitable justice systems, violence against women will remain pervasive in Sudanese societies. In other words, violence against women is fueled by inherent gendered “traditions,” whether there is war or not. While it is important to point out that the war has had detrimental effects on the social order that traditionally offered security, it is not entirely unproblematic to single out the war as the only cause of insecurity and lack of protection for women. Doing so obfuscates a long pre-war social history of violence, and undermines a legitimate question about where the line lies between wartime and peacetime gendered violence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGendered Insecurities, Health and Development in Africa
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781136285370
ISBN (Print)9780415597845
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance
  • General Business, Management and Accounting
  • General Social Sciences


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