Southern Sudanese are at the polls to decide whether they want to remain part of a united Sudan or to break away and become Africa’s newest country.
The referendum is taking place from January 9 to 15 January, but official turnout figures are not expected until the beginning of February.
The outcome, which is largely expected to result in an independent South, will have an enormous impact in both the South and the North.
Sadly, though, the focus of international attention goes no farther than the implications for Sudan’s oil resources and the potential for further conflict.
Hardly anyone is concerned with what this moment will mean for Sudan’s citizens especially women.
There are real reasons to be concerned about the future of Sudan’s women, in both the North and the South.
A highly-publicised YouTube video released last month ominously foreshadowed what the future may look like for women post-referendum.
The video shows laughing Sudanese policemen in the North brutally flogging a woman, who is begging for mercy.
The laws that allow such human rights abuses are on the books and raise serious questions about the rights of Sudanese women.
This follows on the other highly-publicised case of Lubna Hussein, who was convicted of violating the Public Order laws for wearing trousers in public, as well as less-publicised cases of police mistreatment of women in Southern Sudan over similar “clothing abuses.”
In response to the YouTube video release last month, hundreds of courageous Sudanese women and some men took to the streets of Khartoum to protest such repressive laws, which allow for public flogging.
Some of those who participated in the demonstration were arrested outside the Ministry of Justice on December 14.
Zaynab Elsawi, a prominent women’s rights activist who was among those arrested, attests that the public flogging incident is “indicative of increased repression of women: Repression, we fear, will only increase in a fragmented Sudan.”
Furthermore, in a speech given in the Al-Gadarif region of eastern Sudan on December 19, President Omar al Bashir affirmed his support for the YouTube woman’s sentence, as well as his intention to drive Sudan toward Islamic fundamentalism, should the South secede.
Ignoring the diversity of Northern Sudan, including Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and other areas, President Bashir made clear his intentions for a Sudan that is only Muslim, Arabic-speaking, and under a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law.
These are fear-inspiring remarks for Sudan’s women, who have fought decades for the new spaces they have been able to occupy thanks to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan.
Among the gains made are quotas for 25 per cent representation for women in Southern Sudan for all legislative and executive branches of government from the national to the local level, and a minimum 25 per cent for all seats in the National Assembly and state legislative assemblies in Northern Sudan.
The women of Sudan want to continue their movement toward equal opportunities.
So far women have been largely excluded from post-referendum negotiation processes.
The African Union has entrusted former South African President Thabo Mbeki to play a leading role in facilitating these processes, and while I have been supportive of Mbeki and his Sudan initiative, his initiative has yet to seriously include women.
We support Sudanese women who are calling for post-referendum structures that are democratic, inclusive, participatory, and promote respect for women’s and children’s rights.
I am encouraged by the untiring efforts of those Sudanese women who are committed to continued co-operation between the North and South as they work for peace, regardless of borders.
Women will need to continue to work together to ensure that their human rights are protected and that they are empowered to be effective and responsible citizens of Sudan.
The Sudanese government’s development partners, including the African Union, should ensure that the governments of Sudan respect the rights of women.
Following the launch of the African Union Decade of Women in 2010, it is imperative that our leaders in the African Union demonstrate solidarity with Sudan’s women.
We look to Africa’s leaders to ensure that Sudan’s women can continue their quest for equality and justice.