The central African area’s founding leader John Garang said the area’s women were ‘the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised of the marginalised.’
But as South Sudan gets ready to become an official independent nation, on July 9, things are changing for women.
Since 2005, when North and South Sudan signed a peace deal that put a stop to decades of civil war, the tide has been turning.
Ayom Wol walked out of her successful life as a London media professional five years ago to return to her roots in South Sudan. She regrets nothing.
“I honestly believe from everything I’m hearing there are far more opportunities here than there are there in the UK, particularly for women,” she said. “There are great opportunities for women here. I’m more than positive,” she told Reuters.
What she says seems completely at odds with the figures. Only 27 per cent of girls in south Sudan go to primary school. And about 84 per cent of women can’t read or write compared with 60 per cent of men. And many girls get married when they are just 14 or younger.
But things have come a long way since the peace deal. Women now have key roles in government and make up more than a third of what will become the new parliament parliament, while many who fled the war are returning with new skills and confidence.
The fledgling nation’s law guarantees women at least a quarter of seats in decision-making bodies, but women already have 34 per cent of parliament seats.
“Women are being elected into leadership positions in a way that certainly wouldn’t have happened traditionally,” Wol said.
But for that momentum to carry on, Wol says it is vital that government and aid agencies make sure women have access to money, know-how and resources. A lot of subsistence farming is done by women, she says, but she’s worried that they may get ignored because of a mind-set that women can’t do certain tasks.
“The idea was that because of history and culture women were left behind. Giving them 25 per cent representation would be like a stepping-stone so that they can catch up,” she said. “You can see how women have been deciding the direction of things and our government is very aware of that. And we believe we can use those successes in negotiating for a better position in an independent Republic of South Sudan, so we are not going backwards,” she added.