This paper is based on research by Lona J. E. LoWilla


The objective of this paper is to detail the situation of Southern Sudanese women in the context of international human rights law. It is clear that, despite the efforts made by international bodies to improve women’s conditions world-wide through universal conventions and development programmes, many women’s condition continues to remain unacceptable and even to deterioriate, especially in Africa.

This paper begins with the perspective that the policies adopted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to address social issues in Southern Sudan are not enough to remedy the basic problem of discrimination against women. This paper examines some of the legal and political aspects of the responsibilities and roles of the state, as well as the persistence of the civil war, and how these have contributed to neglect and violation of women’s basic rights.

Women’s access to health, education, food and indeed life itself, to privacy, family and protection are tackled in relation to the provisions of universal human rights agreements.

It is argued that the protracted civil war in Sudan and the discriminatory policies perpetuated by the present Government of Sudan are contrary to the provisions of international human rights standards. As a result, the conditions of Southern Sudanese women continue to deteriorate and their rights remain at risk from violations by both parties to the conflict, namely the Government and the SPLA. The rights of Southern Sudanese women can only be truly respected when there is peace. The pursuit of peace is therefore a fundamental element in the human rights struggle of Southern Sudanese women; while a continuation of the war—which appears unwinnable by either side—can only prolong human suffering and abuse of rights. However, a solution to the war must also seek to address the underlying problems of discrimination, unequal citizenship rights, and other political, social and economic failures.


Although the principle of equality of men and women was recognised in both the UN charter in 1945 and the UN Declaration of Human Right in 1948, the majority of development planners and workers have not fully addressed women’s position in the development process. Recent research has shown that development planners work on the assumption that programmes that benefit one section of the society (men) would automatically trickle down to the other (women). However, decades of experience have shown that development cannot be sustainable if half of the population (women) do not participate fully in all aspects of the process of development and share fully in the benefits. Women’s rights activists have drawn the attention of many researchers, planners and international organizations to this problem in the last decade. As a result, many initiatives to respond to women’s concerns and to address issues related to women’s rights have emerged in international fora, notably the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing.

In an attempt to analyse the situation of women in Southern Sudan, the paper centres on some important legal, social and political aspects in Sudan which have negatively affected women’s fundamental rights as human beings. Aspects such as some traditional customs and the on-going civil war will be assessed.

The paper argues that the policies adopted by both the government and the liberation movement in addressing societal problems exclude gender policies in addressing national issues. They also do not take into consideration the needs of women, rights and problems and how to offer lasting solutions. Instead, both parties are pre-occupied with military strategy and mobilisation because each party believes that the war can be won militarily. Consequently, women’s basic rights are neglected and abandoned.

Their great potential for participation in development has been under-utilized. The SPLM has recently recognised the importance of including women’s participation in its organisation, and has adopted some policies accordingly. For example there is now an SPLM Secretary for Women’s Affairs. Although this is a small step, it may in time help to encourage women’s participation in political, social and developmental affairs. Currently, women in Southern Sudan are estimated to constitute up to 60% of the entire population, because of the high number of men in the SPLA, who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, or who are dead. Women often work longer hours and take on greater responsibilities than men. However, women are not well represented in decision-making at senior levels in the SPLM.

There are many well-qualified Southern Sudanese women. Sudanese women love their country just like men do. In order for women to play their rightful roles in nation building to their full potential, the fundamental rights of women and children that are enshrined in international charters should be respected in Southern Sudan. The difficult war environment currently prevailing makes it more important, not less, to respect women’s rights.


Considering the health situation of south Sudanese women in the light of international human rights standards on the right to health, it can be clearly seen that women’s rights to health have been violated and ignored. In Sudan, the civil war and human rights abuses have contributed to chronic famines, economic crises, loss of many lives and spread of diseases. The unavailability of medicine and medical care facilities has made matters worse. Women have borne the brunt of these crises.

The situation is blatantly contrary to the provision of Article 16(1) and (2) of the African Charter on Human Rights and Article 12(1) and (2,d) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Soclo Cultural Factors:

Every culture has its own norms and taboos. It is a common feature of African cultures to impose taboos on women, particularly during pregnancy. These tend to disadvantage the women. For example, in some cultures women are not allowed to eat eggs while they are carrying children in their wombs for the reason that they are protectors of life.

In some cultures it is a custom for women to marry very young, so that they start having sexual intercourse at a very early age, even before their reproductive organs are fully developed. This jeopardises their health and even their lives during pregnancy and after delivery. The cultural requirement that one must have a son in order to secure the family’s future encourages women to have many children, giving birth frequently before they have regained their health properly. This has serious repercussions for women’s health. But birth-related illnesses are not adequately recognised in traditional Sudanese society.

Socio Economic Factors

Many cultures do consider a woman as a junior partner in a marriage. Whatever a woman possesses is regarded as belonging to her husband and his family. In the past this used to be protective for women, in the context of a functioning extended family structure. Today, when property ownership have been individualised, and hence poverty has been individualised too, women find themselves marginalized although they are key producers of agricultural commodities.

For a long period women have been depending on men and regarded them as their sole source of security. This is now charging as more women find themselves heading households and have to provide all the income and services required for their families. In such families, the health of all family members becomes at risk if the woman has no access to health care for whatever reason.

The Health Sector

The health sector is one of the few areas where there is no discernable discrimination in provision of services. However, as far as family planning is concerned, men sometimes prevent their wives from having access to contraception. The discrimination does not arise in the health service itself, but from the surrounding social environment. In addition, programmes for girl children and disabled people are not yet adequately developed to address their unique problems. Increasingly, some attention is now geared towards them.

Another area in which discrimination arises concerns sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. Traditionally, women were not allowed to abstain themselves from sexual relationship with their husbands, while husbands had the right to be involved in extra-marital affairs. Women therefore run a risk of STDor HIV infection, because most of the time when they try to negotiate the use of condoms with their male partner the response is always negative.

Family Planning

The core idea of family planning is how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and thus control conception. But Southern Sudanese women have a complete lack of opportunity to discuss these issues, let alone systematically practice family planing. The main concern of Southern Sudanese society at present is how to replace children lost through recent disasters, and how to maintain the health of those that are alive. With the decline in the age of weaning, the interval between pregnancies is becoming shortened, and women are obliged to have more children.

At the time there is a consensus among nutritional experts that encourages women to prolong breast-feeding, women in Southern Sudan have to spend a lot of time away from their children. They are out in the fields, market places, collecting wild foods, travelling to relief distribution centres or working pounding grain. Because it is not appropriate to stop the children from breast-feeding for two or three days and then put the children back to the breat, most women prefer to wean them before the traditionally acceptable weaning age which is normally two to three years. In addition without the appropriate weaning diet for the children such as milk, many children end up malnourished and if the mothers continue to be fertile, they end up having frequent pregnancies and becoming malnourished themselves or suffer from any other pregnancy related difficulties. Early weaning on one hand is very stressful for women. This is not only because of their feeling of guilt for neglecting their young children or breaking moral code in which sexual contact during nursing is a taboo but also because they become the subject of gossip about their apparent eagerness to resume sex when the baby is so young. However, infertility is paradoxically a problem on the other hand.

Although the health of all people is affected by the consequence of war, women’s health is more affected. For example, if children or elderly members of the family fall sick, the burden is usually placed on the women who have to take care of them. Since access to proper medical care is difficult due to the isolation of the South and it is difficult to reach health centres due to lack of proper means of transport, the health situation of people deteriorate. As such women continue to suffer both mentally and physically.


Article 26(1) and (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13(1) of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, highlights the right of everyone to education. They further call on the government to make education available to all. However, considering the situation of Southern Sudanese women in the light of the provision of the agreements, one can urge that their rights to education have been violated.

Two main issues have contributed to this situation, the effect of the war and the educational policies adopted by the state. The continuation of the civil war has negatively affected the educational system in most parts of the Southern Sudan, leading to closure of many schools in the South and transfer of some schools from the rural to urban centres or from the urban areas in the South to Khartoum. Such interruptions and transfers of schools have a negative implications on the younger generations, for they are deprived of their right to education.

Although such a situation usually affects both male and female members of the community, however unavailability and inaccessibility of education in the South have a greater impact on women in particular; the people are poor and go in rags. Girls find it difficult to go to the public places in rags. Girls also avoid going to school. Younger girls end up with unstable and uncertain marriages and pregnancies, often by soldiers. Furthermore, the frustration that resulted from the effect of the war and lack of education have driven many youth, both male and female, to acquire unhealthy behaviour which are not accepted by the society. Such behaviour includes heavy drinking, drug taking and so on. All these have a negative impact on their parents who see their children disintegrating both mentally and physically.

Meanwhile, the war has closed most schools in the South, especially in rural areas. The current government has abolished the English language curriculum and insisted on Arabic as the language of instruction, a change that has disadvantaged many Southern students and teachers. Almost all the schools in the rural areas around Juba have been closed and transferred into Juba. Some schools in other areas of Southern Sudan are transferred into Khartoum. Even the Juba University was transferred to Khartoum in 1989. Such transfers have a negative effect on the functioning of schools and the only University in the South since most of the necessary equipment are lacking. This in turn had an impact on the students’ performance.

Such sudden changes in the education system have affected Southern children greatly. This indirectly affected their mothers as well. Those who started their schooling in English face difficulties in learning Arabic in a very short period of time. The absence of potential trained teachers of Arabic and the lack of Arabic books had further made learning Arabic by adult and English pattern students extremely difficult. This provision also limits the percentage of Southern Sudanese students entering the university because Arabic is a precondition for passing the entrance exam.

Girls’ Education

In some societies in Southern Sudan, had negative attitudes towards girls’ education are widely held. Older women are some of those most insistent on these negative views. This tendency is largely due to misconceptions associated with traditional religious-oriented attitudes which are imposed on women in many parts of the South.

The general idea of education and political participation of women on equal footing with men makes men believe that women are their rivals and women are not willing to maintain the traditional role of child bearing and household responsibilities. This misconception has even made men reluctant to marry educated women and they prefer to marry wives with little or no education with a strong orientation towards the home. For example there was a fear that when a girl is allowed to join school for education, she may not respect the societal moral standards and that will bring shame to the family. In addition, girl children often have heavy responsibilities in the household, for helping their mother with child care, food preparation, cleaning and washing, etc.

According to recent studies, schools in Southern Sudan have an average of five hundred pupils. From these five hundred, the number of girls ranges from minimum of five to a maximum of thirty. This illustrates the magnitude of the problem of girls’ education in Southern Sudan. In Rumbek and Yirol counties, the number of girls going to school is only 6.6 per cent. In education the enrolment of girls at the most basic level was only half the enrolment of boys and fell sharply by secondary school level. At this age many of the girls were removed from the education system for a variety of reasons including lack of uniform and suspicion that the education system would corrupt them morally. Also, a large number were removed so they could be married off. Early marriages are commonly cited as a form of abuse by girls who felt they were not physically or psychologically prepared. Parents however, considered it a guarantee of virginity and a means of ensuring numerous children for posterity. Marriage also brings economic bonuses in the form of dowry exchanged for the girl.

Political Participation

In most societies all over the world, and for centuries, the political domain is defined and controlled by powerful men. The absence of women in established political structures and is attributed to the forces of patriarchy, feudalism and capitalism, that kept women out of the public sphere and confined them to work within the family and lowest-paid non-prestigious occupations. Studies also point to colonialism as a factor in women’s subordination and their exclusion from politics.

In response to women’s lack of power, the concept of ‘empowerment’ has become a central issue in the feminist definition of politics. Empowerment is taken as a process by which an oppressed person gain some control over their lives by taking part with others in development of activities and structures that allow people increased involvement in matters which affect them directly. By socially empowering women they will be released from the traditional tedious work focussed on the household and with time they will be involved in political power that will effectively advocate their interests at local, national, and international levels of politics. The process of generating and using power to bring about social change is a political activity.

Meaningful development is not possible when women—normally half the population, and in the case of Southern Sudan about 60%--are excluded from power. Their needs and requirements are not adequately represented and decisions are not taken with their interests in mind.


According to Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.’

The current situation in the Southern Sudan shows the contrary. The conflict in Sudan has greatly affected the family institution, leading to changes in the family structures and the emergence of roles forms of which were not in existence in the past. Women have become bread-winners and care-takers, and have been forced to assume and take more responsibilities and become overburdened.

Privacy here refers to the ability of women to take decisions on issues pertaining to their lives. For instance they are denied to choose a life partner and are not allowed to control their bodies. The law in Sudan forbids them to travel abroad without a husband or a male relative unless after thorough investigations. That is absurd and humiliating.

In almost every society women are disempowered both as members of the households and within the household itself. Due to the current civil war in Sudan, the workload for women has also increased enormously in the villages of Southern Sudan. Women and girls walk many miles—often as many as ten—on a daily basis to fetch water and firewood.

Most of the household work ranging from kitchen to backyard farming and erection of huts rest upon women. This is seen by the Southern Sudanese women as an extra burden to that of childcare and home management. The result of this extra work leaves almost all the women of Southern Sudan without any chance of education and self-improvement. They remain hidden in dark corners and play minimum roles in national affairs. Although women heads of households are responsible for these struggles they do not own property but have to surrender everything to the male members of their families. In addition the work they do is not valued. Instead it is merely seen as an obligation for their families and husbands.

In rural Sudan, people have traditionally depends on various sources of income, of which agriculture and livestock are the most important. Loss of cattle and agricultural lands means a great burden to the families. Before the breakdown of kinship networks due to the current war, a widow or a neglected woman would still rely on support from members of her husband’s family. Losing a husband was not a warranty for poverty. Today, widows and abandoned women are alone. For a woman to head a household almost automatically means poverty. It means long term engagement in low-paid and stigmatized jobs, and sometimes prostitution. Dependency on international relief aid is another symptom of this.

Arranged Marriages

In traditional African societies, it was normally the parents who chose future spouses for their children. Some even did so at the birth of their children—especially if those families were friends. The decision was based on the family’s status, their social background—if they had a good reputation, the better their prestige. Today, before marrying off a daughter, parents are keen about the husband’s wealth, standard of education, culture and social background. In most cases, such marriages last longer, not because the parents are eager to see that it lasts and do all they can to maintain it, but because the parents are ready use all means to force the girl to stay in an abusive marriage out of fear that they will be required to return the bride price to the boy’s parents.

In some parts of Southern Sudan, relief has attracted poor widows and abandoned wives whose families have failed to provide for them. These women live in extremely poor conditions in order to keep their malnourished children in feeding centres. These women continue to have children from brothers and cousins of their deceased husbands. In case their negligent husbands are near and wish to have more children, the women do not have decision-making powers to dictate their wishes. They are bound by an unwritten contract to bear as many children as possible throughout their reproductive age because they have been married with their husband’s ancestors’ cows—which have to be rewarded through the birth of many children.

Life around the feeding centre means the woman has to spend part of her day standing in the queue trying to get a ration for her child, another part in another queue to secure a ration for relief food for herself and her older children.

In these cases, it should be a basic right for women to be able to choose to remain single, and concentrate her limited energies on caring for her existing children.


The currenct civil war has led to the isolation of the Southern Sudanese from the outside world. This isolation has deprived the people, especially women, of their fundamental rights which include their rights to health, education, life, food, family and privacy and the right to a peaceful life. It has made women unable to realize their rights as individual and citizens as well as to develop the important roles they can play in wider society.

Both the government and the SPLA leaders appear to believe in war as the solution to the conflict in the Sudan. As a result the issue of women’s rights continues to be neglected and women continue to suffer.

Women also face enormous social and cultural handicaps in comparison with men, reflecting numerous customs in Southern Sudan that treated women as commodities rather than full human beings in possession of rights.

  • In order to ensure that women’s rights are respected, and women’s voices are heard and taken into account, women should be encouraged to participate in all aspects of decision-making and law making.
  • Women should have equal access to education. Adult literacy should be encouraged to give opportunities to enable them participate effectively in public matters.
  • Society should be sensitized and educated on issues to pertaining gender and development.
  • As citizens, whose interests lie in peaceful solutions to the armed conflict in the Sudan, women should be given the chance to participate in peace talks, to question the existing policies and to give their point of view. For it is the women who experience much of the hardship caused by the war.
  • Women’s access to the media and various public forums must be increased. Through listening to real experiences of women and the problems they face as they struggle to survive, there will be better understanding of the problems and thus possible solutions.

In conclusion, women should open their eyes to wider national issues, that affect their lives in important ways. When rights are violated or conflict begun, women’s rights are the first to be affected. It is important that women should mobilise to promote democracy and human rights.

Southern Sudan is currently in the process of renewal, hopefully leading to reconstruction and the creation of a New Sudan. This opens up the hope for a ‘new Sudanese woman’, who is more competent and united, a good facilitator and leaders. In the New Sudan as it exists, women have begun to enter into the political domain more than ever before. The steps are modest but the hopes are great.

Women should be equal to men and involved in institutions at all levels: local, national and international. In future Sudan women should be able to play the role as agents of change, to help solve old problems and achieve new goals. Woman could become the eliminators of corruption, eradicate poverty, control population growth, increase human rights awareness, reduce violence, make peace, and improve education. A women’s committee could be formed to visit illiterate women and organize workshops—giving lectures to create awareness on the importance of women’s role and participation in national activities. The focus should be on young women and girls, bringing them into contact with ideas of women’s rights from around the world.

Previously, the central role of all Sudanese women was to preserve their traditions, national heritage and cultures, and also to instill in their children respect for customary values and history. Women have come to realize that they are still traditional yet they have to remove the barriers that hinder their advancement. The first step for Sudanese women is that they should be peacemakers. Women should promote actions on behalf of displaced and refugee women who are socially disadvantaged. If women agreed to work as a unified body their work would succeed. There should be a women’s Convention to gather all women into one arena, so that they can develop a common agenda and aims. The Convention will help to develop programmes that will remove women’s fear of facing the public and raising the issues that concern them. From there, women can decide how they should involve themselves into national political activities.