Among the issues facing women in southern Sudan are high rates of poverty, illiteracy and maternal mortality. Bringing those numbers down by 2015 is the aim of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.
Lucie Luguga, who is the program manager for UN Women in the region, says “Statistics show that out of a 100,000 women who give birth, 2,045 die. If you look at the number of women who are aware of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, how to prevent it and how really to empower yourself not to get infection, there’s very few."
"So," she continued, "if we are talking about realizing the MDGs by the year 2015 in south Sudan in terms of women, I think we shall not be able to get there.”
To address some of these challenges, the United Nations is training women as leaders who can advance their causes in the legislative agenda.
For example, one of the new agency’s efforts in southern Sudan, which has high illiteracy rates, was to educate women about their right to vote in last year’s national elections and referendum on independence.
“We undertook awareness programs up to the payam [district] level," she explained. "For instance, in the elections we had two people in every county who went to all the payams in the county to spread the word about the elections, to create awareness about election laws and on the preconditions for voting. That awareness program enabled many women to register and vote."
"For your information," Lugaga continuned, "of all the registered voters in the elections, 55 percent were women. For the referendum, 52 percent [of all registered voters] were women.”
The training also showed potential women candidates how to present their campaign messages to the electorate, how to lobby for votes and how to prepare a statement of principles.
The results were impressive.
She says women made gains in southern Sudan’s legislative assembly and in the country’s 10 state assemblies.
The percentage of women holdings seats in the national legislature went from 20% to 33% and from 20% to 28% in the states.
Luguga says despite the increase in the number of female legislators, the agency is still working to support more women, including in the civil service. According to legal quotas, women should make up 25% of all public sector employees. Luguga would like to see that increased to 50%.
UN Women is also working with a civil society organization, South Sudan Women Empowerment Network, to lobby to have the protection of women guaranteed in the final constitution of the new country.
The national assembly has passed an interim one, but it has not yet been presented to the public for debate and for a referendum. Lugaga hopes more support for women can be included in the document before it is finalized.
“So the [interim] constitution that has been reviewed [by the legislature]," said Lugaga. "If only it could provide for the betterment of the welfare of the women, if it could make sure that it includes sections that will make resources available, to make living conditions of women in south Sudan better, to bring water near to where the women are, to make available economic facilities, economic enterprises that can benefit women then I think that would have been a very good constitution for the women.”
UN Women also wants to mobilize key segments of southern Sudanese society in support of women. The agency will talk with religious and traditional leaders and women lawyers about how they can promote women’s issues once southern Sudan becomes independent in July.