On the Nation's Birthday, South Sudan's Women Must Stand Up for Their Rights

09/07/2012 12:19 BST | Updated 07/09/2012 10:12 BST

This has been a rapidly changing year of independence for South Sudan and the people who have been trying to rebuild the nation after more than 50 years of conflict. There is great hope, commitment and energy among its population but there are many challenges ahead. In many cases it is women who are facing the toughest challenges. But as I have found as a volunteer working with women across South Sudan, more and more women are finding their voices and becoming empowered to have their say in the future of this country.

While conflict with northern neighbours still dominates the world's view of the country there is no shortage of domestic problems, made worse by a lack of income generation since the shutdown of South Sudan's oil production. However, on an increasingly restrictive austerity budget there is an urgent need to improve health and education services to tackle high maternal mortality and illiteracy rates and ensure gender equality is embedded in the nation's foundation.

Gender-based violence is a serious issue all over the world and in South Sudan it casts a prominent shadow across society. There is critical lack of implementation and understanding of women's human rights among the police and judiciary which makes bringing perpetrators to justice very difficult.

Though the government has committed to an affirmative 25% quota of women in all levels of government, this target has yet to be translated into reality. We need these women in posts to be part of the key decision making processes. For example, no women sit on the committee which sets the country's austerity budget and women are therefore unable to influence spending decisions on these critical services. In a society where over 80% of women are illiterate and girls make up only 37% of the primary school population, many women are under-qualified to take these roles.

VSO volunteers like me are working with women's organisations in South Sudan to strengthen their capacity and strategic development in order to meet the needs of marginalised and vulnerable women they support. I am helping the South Sudan Women's Empowerment Network (SSWEN) with its mission to empower South Sudanese women through women's rights, education, policy and advocacy programmes.

South Sudan's transitional constitution, which forms the basis of all laws in the country, has steered away from superseding customary law where it is harmful to women. Because local rule of law takes precedence there is an immediate need to have a clear and consistent implementation of women's rights that is led by the constitution. For example, inheritance rights differ between tribes in South Sudan and each culture has its own traditional rule of law, but often the rights of women are not recognised and they suffer economic loss and violence.

Ordinary women across the country do not know what their rights are. SSWEN is working to support women through advocacy and awareness-raising of the rights women and young girls. We are working with grassroots groups to equip women with the knowledge to exercise their human rights and call for an end to harmful practices against them.

This has been a revelation for women across all ages and groups. If you have never been informed that you are entitled to decent healthcare, if you don't have access to the internet and if the local government is a distant structure with whom you have no engagement, then how would you know what your rights are?

I have started to travel with SSWEN to areas where they are providing training in the constitution to address this knowledge gap as part of a 'know your rights campaign' funded by UN Women. For some women, it's the first time they have been informed they have a right to a share in the estates of their deceased husbands.

There are many practices, deeply rooted in people's beliefs and systems, which strip women of their rights but also of their dignity and independence. This is why we are getting people to talk about what is happening, to share their personal experiences.

SSWEN is mobilising women to play an active role in the development of the nation. We are supporting them to voice their concerns which will feed into the consultation process before the transitional constitution is ratified next year. SSWEN's Director Lilian Riziq is on the National Constitution Review Commission and will be representing the rights of all women and girls.

This is a unique opportunity to ensure women's issues are not sidelined and to commit investment for a range of services. Investment is needed to train midwives based in rural areas; to provide teacher training centres with resources; and to support women when they report crimes. We need this not only to protect women from society's harmful practices and gender-based violence, but also to enable them to become the leaders of tomorrow.

At the end of a recent three-day training session run by SSWEN one woman said: "It is important to ask the truth and speak of the realities. If we don't have a voice of truth then things will not change." Another stood up and declared that her daughter could one day become the president, and why not? With this determination and these critical spaces for dialogue, the levers of change are starting to turn.