Finding Sudan’s future women political leaders: 1,070 and rising

40% of Sudan’s new parliamentary seats are allocated to women, but challenges remain in filling them. A search for potential candidates found 1,070 women, many young, eager to represent their communities.

Photo: UNDP Sudan/Will Seal

“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 needs to be done. So, I thought, I will try, I will try to break these taboos. The taboos in our head, in society, in culture and in politics. As women, we deserve to be heard.”
— Roaa Bakri Bilal, women’s rights activist and political hopeful, 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Laws restricting freedom of dress, movement and work were repealed, female genital mutilation was criminalized, and 40% female representation in the 300-seat Transitional Legislative Council (a temporary parliament-type body)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 are echoed by women across Sudan, many who are working to ensure this increased representation offers a permanent opportunity, and builds on the broader discussions of women’s rights already made possible.

“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 bring this vision to life specific mechanisms are required, allowing for Sudan’s current political situation. “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 along the same party representation as the Transition Government.”

Women’s rights activists discussing gender quotas in the Transitional Legislative Council at UNDP Sudan, part of the planning process to ensure sufficient representation. Photo: UNDP Sudan/Will Seal.

However, the constitution requires 120 women to fill these seats. A history of limited female political participation, numerous barriers, and claims of insufficient candidates poses a challenge: finding Sudan’s future female political leaders.

An early 2020 UNDP-funded exercise set out to promote political participation and identify (and later train) potential candidates.

Visiting 110 cities, villages and internally displaced person camps over six weeks, 11 teams from the Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups (MANSAM) and the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (SORD) identified 1,070 women, two-thirds aged 40 or under, 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 Darfurian women’s advocate Nema Fadul Dawood 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 which we represent are not keen on us.”

And, beyond the larger challenges of discrimination and political inexperience lay practical ones. Women taking part in the project indicated a previous lack of training available to them for critically needed skills like public speaking, or access to legislation. Similarly, concerns around travel expenses, childcare and security were raised.

But, with a passion for change, the barriers are surmountable for Nema and others sharing her vision — like Khartoum-resident Roaa Bakri Bilal, a political hopeful driven to represent women everywhere.

“The proposal [for 40% 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.”

Roaa (right), a women’s rights activist and aspiring politician, believes preparation and determination will be the critical factors in increasing the role of women in Sudan’s political sphere. Photo: Supplied.

A women’s rights activist by passion and chemist by profession, Roaa played a key role during the revolution in her local resistance committee, and has strong aspirations for young women, something she intends to carry to the new 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 — ensuring parties are ready to put forward candidates, identifying and encouraging women to stand — training for successful candidates awaits the formation of the Council. This is expected after the signing of a national peace agreement, currently in negotiation.

Mustafa, one of the researchers, interviewing women in South Darfur. After Khartoum, South Darfur had the highest number of women registering to participate in the political process. Photo: SORD.

Regardless of the wait, one person who knows success is inevitable is Mustafa Khamid, a researcher for the project in South Darfur. Talking to hundreds of interested candidates, he understands 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, 40% representation offers a significant role for women in Sudan’s leadership, legislation, 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.”

“Since childhood, I have lived in a male dominant society, where woman have limited roles, especially in politics… This is OK for us, we grew up like this, but for the next generation I wish for them to have a different life…This is why I want to participate in the upcoming Legislative Council…I want women to know their rights and realize their true potential.”

- Nema Fadul Dawood, women’s rights activist, East Darfur

Key facts:

- Supported by UNDP, two national NGOs — Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups (MANSAM) and the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (SORD) — conducted a six week mapping exercise to promote political participation, and identify potential candidates for the 40%/120-seat female component of the 300-seat Transitional Legislative Council.

- Following a media campaign, 11 teams visited 110 cities, villages and internally displaced person camps across 17 states, identifying 1,070 women. The high numbers provided an opportunity to improve female representation elsewhere and expand the project’s focus to include other national- and state-level representation, and key government posts.

- Participants reported a wide range of barriers to taking part in politics: discriminative traditional/cultural/social norms (32 percent); other (17 percent); patriarchal systems (14 percent); lack of women empowerment (14 percent); stereotyping of women’s roles (12 percent) and others.

- Wide variations remain in average percentages of women parliamentarians around the world. As of February 2019, these were: Nordic countries (42.5 percent); Americas (30.6 percent); Europe (excl Nordic) (27.2 percent); sub-Saharan Africa (23.9 percent); Asia (19.8 percent); Arab States (19 percent); and the Pacific (16.3 percent).

Implementation of 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 core funding, provided by a number of contributing nations. Core resources allow UNDP to enable coordinated, flexible, and rapid responses to development and humanitarian needs.

By UNDP Sudan

‏‏شعوب متمكنة، أمم صامدة -الحساب الرسمي لبرنامج الأمم المتحدة الإنمائي في المنطقة العربية. UNDP official account in the Arab States

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