RUMBEK, Southern Sudan, Jan 26, 2005 (IPS) — The roads are carpeted by thick layers of dust. Tanks, military trucks and the skeletal remains of buildings dot the landscape. Welcome to Rumbek: the newly-designated administrative capital of southern Sudan.
Sudanese residents sing as they await the arrival of John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Rumbek, on Sudany January 23, 2005. (AFP).
Less visible than bombed out buildings are the damaging memories people have of the conflict that engulfed this part of the country for more than two decades, and which just recently came to an end.
“I lost eight of my nine children and my husband to the war before I was gang-raped by the soldiers years ago. For a long time I lived in desolation, harbouring feelings of anger and hatred,” says 55-year-old Alek Akuer, who has taken to saying prayers every morning while facing a tanker parked next to her straw and grass thatched hut. She does this in the hope that peace will last.
Simply by surviving the war, Akuer has defied the odds in a remarkable way. About two million other people in south Sudan died in the conflict – or succumbed to the disease and famine which fighting opened the door to. Still more were displaced: four million and counting.
Now Akuer and others who live in Rumbek are hoping for a substantial peace dividend that will include new schools, improved health services and tarred roads in an area which has little to no infrastructure.
“We are happy about the peace and we pray that God will help us. We need all these things in place, especially schools to offer free education. We do not have money, and since education is not free here our children do not go to school,” Rumbek resident Apodha Maditshe told IPS, pointing to her five nephews playing naked outside.
In a promising development, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the rebel movement that took up arms against Khartoum in 1983, appears to be giving priority to education.
This is in line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2000 in a bid to raise living standards around the globe by 2015. One of the eight MDGs calls for universal primary education to be established in all countries within the next decade.
The SPLM/A says schooling for girls will receive particular attention.
According to a report published jointly in June last year by the New Sudan Center for Statistics and Evaluation and the United Nations Children’s Fund, ‘Towards a Baseline: Best Estimates of Social Indicators for Southern Sudan’, girls in the region are more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than complete primary school.
The New Sudan Center for Statistics and Evaluation forms part of the SPLM/A.
The emphasis on educating girls reflects a larger strategy within the movement to address cultural factors that undermine the status of women.
“Women are the marginalised of the marginalised,” said SPLM/A leader John Garang at a press conference in Rumbek this weekend, during his first visit to the town since the signing of a peace deal on Jan. 9. “The government of south Sudan will provide the necessary environment for women to succeed.”
Women reportedly constitute 65 percent of southern Sudan’s population.
“The SPLM/A draft constitution provides that women will be represented in the level of 25 percent in all aspects of decision making, and then they will compete with the men for the remaining 75 percent,” Garang told reporters, adding “We will have programmes for women, but women themselves have to be organized to compete for the other percentage, rather than being spoon-fed.”
In terms of the peace agreement for southern Sudan, signed in Kenya, former rebels are to participate in a government of national unity for six years after which a referendum will be held on whether the south should secede. In the interim, the region will be autonomous under Garang.
The war in the south was largely fought to gain independence and religious freedom for the region’s Christian and animist inhabitants, who resisted control by Islamic authorities in the north. The two sides were also at loggerheads over who should profit from oil resources in southern Sudan.
Fair treatment for women is also stipulated in the Jan. 9 accord, initialed after more than two years of talks held under the auspices of the Inter Governmental Authority on Development – a regional grouping.
Nonetheless, women’s rights activists like Aguil de’Chut Deng remain sceptical of the SPLM/A’s ability to put its money where its mouth is as far as improving the lot of women is concerned.
“The draft talks of a 25 percent women representation in all key posts. This has been said again and again even before the peace was signed, but what we have not seen is implementation. We are saying that what we want in the new Sudan now is action,” she told IPS in Rumbek.
In addition to governing south Sudan, Garang will serve as vice-president in a government of national unity that will administer the country until the referendum on independence for the south is held.
The forces of the SPLM/A and government are to be integrated into a single army, while oil revenues will be shared between the two sides.