ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — Three members of the team negotiating for South Sudanese rebels in Ethiopia are women. They have been playing a role in what is usually a male arena.
The ongoing high-level peace talks between South Sudan’s government and opposition include three women on the opposition side who are members of the national parliament in Juba.
The three delegates said they were aware seeing women sitting at the negotiating table might look strange to some Africans.
Sophia Pak Gai said she felt her country needed to be transformed.
“We want to see that our people live in harmony and in peace. And actually, we are here pushing for peace as women because the majority of the population in South Sudan are women, 65 percent,” she said.
Fighting in South Sudan broke out mid-December between the opposition and the government headed by President Salva Kiir.
The peace delegations have been in Addis Ababa for negotiations on a cease-fire since the beginning of January. Each delegation consists of 10 members.
The conflict began as a division in South Sudan’s ruling party, the SPLM. The party is no stranger to war as it fought against its northern neighbor Sudan for decades.
Pak Gai said the role of women during war should not be underestimated.
“Women participated in many fronts, they took care of families, they nursed the wounded soldiers, they prepared food for soldiers, even in the front line. And on top of this, they took arms actually. They took arms along their counterparts," she said.
One of the women who was fighting on the frontline is delegation member Banguot Amumm.
She said that during negotiations, women were more specific than men.
“For others, who will see us on TV, at the roundtable they will see it as a shock for them, and they were not expecting us as women to be the one rebelling. We cannot accept to continue under the leadership of Kiir, where he organized himself and would start targeting certain ethnic groups to maintain himself in power,” said Amumm.
The delegation of South Sudan’s government does not include any women. Acting lead negotiator and Minister of Information Michael Makuei said the delegation was appointed by presidential decree.
“What is important is not the gender representation but what is important is the achievement of the objective. The objective is irrespective if they are represented or not,” said Makuei.
But former minister of social development and SPLM deputy chairperson Sarah Nyanath believed it did make a difference if women were present. She said women had different priorities than men, such as protecting women and children during conflicts.
The SPLM has known affirmative action for a long time, assigning at least a quarter of seats to women in every party body. In parliament, 100 out of 332 seats are women.
The United Nations agency UN Women said that for the most part, there was a striking absence of women in formal peace negotiations around the world. The agency said their role as negotiators, mediators, signatories or even witnesses remained notably low.