In Sudan, Women Showed the World How It’s Done

Opinion

By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

  • Oct. 15, 2019
Alaa Salah, a Sudanese protester, in April. A photo of her leading a chant against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became a sensation.
Alaa Salah, a Sudanese protester, in April. A photo of her leading a chant against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became a sensation.CreditCreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

The world watched earlier this year as the people of Sudan rose up to demand the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an authoritarian who had presided over three decades of brutal rule. A protest over bread prices quickly blossomed into a full-throated demand for civilian government. On April 11, after nearly four months of demonstrations, the military announced it had arrested Mr. al-Bashir, finally ending his reign.

Sudanese women were at the forefront of this movement for democracy and change, having endured years of marginalization, harassment and sexual violence. By some estimates, they made up as many as two-thirds of the protesters. A photo of the young protester Alaa Salah leading a chant against the regime became a viral sensation, illustrating the revolutionary power of the country’s women.

The protest movement that ousted Mr. al-Bashir is yet another example of African women’s increasing participation in the political process, whether as activists or legislators. As of July 2019, four of the world’s top 15 countries with the highest percentage of female lawmakers in their lower or single houses of parliament are in Africa. Thirteen African nations have parliaments with female membership at 30 percent or higher.

Creating inclusive democracies takes time, however. And inclusion cannot occur without strong democratic institutions and basic respect for the rule of law, both of which have long been absent in Sudan.

The months between Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster in April and the August signing of a transitional power-sharing agreement between Sudan’s ruling military council and the pro-democracy opposition were marked by widespread protests and violence. On June 3, a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Response Forces attacked pro-democracy protesters in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, as they demanded an end to the military-led government that took power after Mr. al-Bashir’s arrest. A doctors’ group associated with the opposition estimated that 127 people were killed and approximately 70 raped in the attack. The following month, several student demonstrators were shot and killed by security forces in the city of El-Obeid.

As Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born businessman and philanthropist, has written, “Intimidation, harassment and violence have no place in a democracy.” How right he is.

But in order for democracies to be safe, women must have power. That means more than just the right to vote; women need real decision-making authority. Their voices must be heard on the streets and in all branches of government.

Sudanese protesters celebrated the arrest of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April.
Sudanese protesters celebrated the arrest of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April.CreditEuropean Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock

Electing more women to office normalizes the idea that women and other marginalized groups can wield power effectively. It also changes the government’s priorities and makes it function better over all. Various studies have shown that women tend to be less autocratic and to work more collaboratively. Research also suggests that governments with more women in office are more likely to spend money on health care and education and to advance women’s rights.

A 2017 study by the Brookings Institution found that gender equality and democracy strengthen each other. When there is greater equality in governance, a nation’s “relative state of peace” is increased, security is improved and there is less aggression toward other countries. In turn, when democracy is stronger, women are less likely to suffer violence and enjoy greater political and economic equality.

How can we set this virtuous cycle of inclusion and democracy in motion? The question must be asked, not only in Sudan as the country works to build a stable civilian government, but also all across the world, as women struggle for equality and representation.

I humbly offer three suggestions.

First, quotas must be set for female representation at all levels of government. Research has shown that gender quotas, although not a perfect system, do help women overcome the cultural, economic and electoral barriers that keep them from holding elected office. Such quotas can later be phased out, based on the recognition that women, once in office, will begin to share in the benefits normally granted to men.

Mandated quotas of various kinds have gained traction in Africa and around the world in recent years. For example, a constitutional requirement in Rwanda — the world’s leader in terms of female representation in Parliament — stipulates that women must account for at least 30 percent of all decision-making organizations in government.

In the case of Sudan, which recently embarked on a three-year transition toward democracy after months of unrest, women must have a large seat at the negotiating table and play an active role in the peace process. In a hopeful sign, Sudan’s new cabinet includes the country’s first female foreign minister, Asma Mohamed Abdalla.

Second, the international community must be more responsive in advocating for stronger democratic institutions. Instead of becoming involved only after tragedy occurs, as happened in Sudan, international actors and institutions must learn to detect the warning signs of impending violence and lend support by pressing for open dialogue, ensuring that women have the right to speak up. In this way, nations can make the transition to democracy without resorting to mass protests and bloodshed.

Third, we must support girls in Africa and around the world, by providing them with education, health care and economic empowerment. We also need to think seriously about leadership training, whether that means providing assistance to the young women who are bold enough to enter politics or creating networking platforms that empower women across cultures and continents.

Sudan’s democratic revolution would not have been possible without the efforts of women and girls. I believe that, in time, Sudanese women will enjoy the full fruits of democracy. Until then, we must stand with them, in our words and deeds.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the former president of Liberia (2006-2018) and a joint recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs through the perspectives of thought leaders and commentators.

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