According to the most recent Gender Equity Index (GEI) – which is an indication of the gap between women and men in education, economic activity and political empowerment – Sudan lags behind the Sub-Saharan African average and most of its neighbours.
This state of affairs, characterised by a wide gender gap and pervasive gender-based discrimination exists in today’s Sudanese society, despite precocious achievements Sudanese women made in the middle of last century in winning political and civil rights ahead of their regional counterparts.
Gender experts and activists in Sudan attribute the lack of gender mainstreaming in their country to a number of complex dynamics that have their roots in socio-economic relations while interplaying within a legal and cultural framework that legitimises male dominance in Sudanese society.
Neimat Kuku, a development expert and team leader at The Gender Studies Centre (TGSC) in Khartoum, says a good indication of the stature of Sudanese women is how well they measure up against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of Women Empowerment and Gender Equality, a goal that calls for guaranteeing women’s economic and political rights.
“There is a lack of strategic vision on the part of the government,” Kuku says. “The responsibility of advocating and campaigning for gender equity therefore falls squarely on the shoulders of civil society activists and other non-state actors.”
She says the task facing civil society is enormous considering the structural impediments that make women in Sudan lag behind their male counterparts in education, the job market and adequate reproductive medical care. And although their representation in productivity is peripheral, women in Sudan also suffer a high rate of unemployment compared to men according to statistics that exclude housework that is reserved for women.
Development experts in Sudan say the introduction of free market policies in Sudan in the 1990s, and later the loss of huge oil revenues due to the separation of South Sudan in 2011, have forced more women to join the labour market, taking up jobs in public service and in the industrial sector, while a huge number with less education have landed in the so-called unregulated or marginal sector – tea ladies and other girls and women who sell food on the streets all over Sudan.
Civil wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states have also aggravated the economic conditions of hundreds of thousands of women and girls who have lost their providers in these war-torn rural areas.
Khartoum-based legal consultant Amal al-Zain says where Sudanese women are today is a total setback considering that in the past, women in Sudan made major strides and participated in crucial political transitions in their country’s history. Sudanese women won the right to vote in 1964 and Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim became the first female Member of Parliament after a popular uprising that toppled a military dictatorship and installed a democratic government. Equal pay for women was guaranteed for equal work as their male counterparts by 1969.
Sexism supported by laws
Al-Zain says despite the fact that women today occupy 25 per cent of the seats in Sudan’s parliament, laws and regulations that allow gender discrimination and gender-based violence against 49 per cent of Sudan’s 30 million plus population are present on the books, with no official channels available to challenge them.
Chief among these laws, al-Zain explains, is the personal matters act of 1991 that gives men total authority over women’s personal and sometimes public choices and conduct.
“The personal matters act has a basic philosophy that discriminates against women and institutionalises their subordination,” al-Zain says. “It robs them of personal freedoms including the freedom to choose whom they want to marry – a male guardian can marry off a 10-year-old girl to any man.”
“The prevalence of child marriage in the Nile State in Northern Sudan jumped from seven or eight to 26 per cent because of this law,” al-Zain adds. Other laws that al-Zain says violate women’s rights are the criminal act of 1991, the public order law of 1996 and the labour law.
Al-Zain says Sudan not only needs comprehensive legal reform but also political and social reform that would restore the old values and practices that once existed in early independent Sudan and under democratic governments that respected women’s rights.
A light ahead
Amani Tabidi, Executive Director at Babiker Bedri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies says the future may yet be bright for Sudanese girls and women. Her association, which is part of Ahfad University for Women focusses on the eradication of harmful practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation, has come a long way since it’s founding in 1979 in educating girls about their rights and making them agents of change.
“There are many indicators that say these harmful practices will be reduced,” Tabidi says. “People want to see their voices raised when they say ‘we have uncut daughters’. We listen to some young men saying ‘we want to marry uncircumcised girls’.”
Tabidi’s students carry out educational outreach for women and girls in Sudan’s rural areas. “They go and meet with communities and raise their awareness,” she says. “Each year we have a specific slogan for the trips, like female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriage, breast cancer etc. And they do role plays and public lectures, for example.”
Despite enormous structural challenges facing women and girls in Sudan, Tabidi says, change is coming—slowly maybe, but surely.