KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - Women had a leading role in the September 2018 Revolution that ended thirty years of corruption and humiliation of the Sudanese people in general and women in particular. This leading role of women in the struggle and in politics in general had continued ever since the days of the ancient Meroe queens, the Kendakes.
In documentation of women’s struggle in modern times, Sudanow has interviewed renowned political and feminine activist Sawsan Hassan Salih Elshowaya, founder and member in the coordination body of the women political and civic groups network, known by the Arabic acronym (MANSAM), that embodies over 16 women political organizations,17 civil groups plus37 organizations and three MANSAM branches outside the country, grouped together under peaceful action towards the women causes, the society of liberties, peace, the rule of law and democracy.
Ms. Sawsan holds a BA in economics and social studies from the University of Khartoum (1981) and an MA in gender and development from the Ahfad Women University (2002) plus other academic certificates.
She worked at the Public Corporation for Petroleum until she was dismissed for political reasons in 1992. Then she served in the Sudanese French Bank and was dismissed from the bank upon orders from the central bank, the Bank of Sudan. Then she served as a UN consultant and as general manager of Volvo Group.
Ms. Sawsan was active in women organizations for long years: The Sudanese Women Union (founded in 1952 and banned by the Bashir regime) and ‘No to Women Oppression’ society that fought against violations against women for the last 30 years, beside other civil society groups.
Sudanow: Please give us a briefing of the history of the Sudanese women movement.
Sawsan: The Sudanese women movement was associated and grew up with the Sudan liberation movement from British colonization rule when the pioneers of feminine action came in action in late 1940s. This movement had at that time embraced all female political activists. Later on women asked for right to vote. Adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood Sua’ad Alfatih and Thurayya Umbabi split from the group in protest of the activists’ call for women right to vote, under the pretext that Sudanese women were not ready for this move at that time. It is an irony that the Muslim Brotherhood females had later on capitalized on this move and became MPs for years. In 1952 women activists launched the Sudanese Women Union (SWU).
Sudanow: Tell us please about the achievements of the Sudanese women movement.
Sawsan: Women have achieved the right of equal pay for equal work, motherhood leave and a one hour breastfeeding leave for mothers during a day’s work, also cancelled (Beit Altaa), that is, dragging women by police to their husbands' house against their will. Those rights were attained at a very early stage and even before many western countries. So, the Sudanese women had set the course in this drive. The Sudanese women had initiated action in education and nursing since the 1920s. Before that, the late Babikir Badri had launched the first girls school in the town of Rufa’a in 1907.
In 1964 and following the popular October Revolution, the Sudanese women obtained the right for election, i.e parliamentary representation. SWU Chairwoman Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim was elected MP in 1965 as the first woman to assume this job in Sudan and the Middle East. SWU split after Nimeri regime.
Women action continued to stand against Bashir regime and effecting change in the Sudan in different ways. Women through civil society groups participated in the initiative for civil society which was launched after the September 2013 protests in which all the political organizations seeking change took part in a united front. This grouping had strengthened opposition action towards the objectives of peace, justice, democracy and development and that was what united us with the political parties.
Sudanow: What did your grouping with the political organizations add to the women movement?
Sawsan: Within ‘the Sudan Call group launchedvin December 2014, we worked on alternative policies in which experts of different specializations studied the situation and the potential of the economic sectors (agriculture, industry, transportation, electricity etc..) and devised alternative plans to upgrade and develop them. I was the rapporteur of the economic axis. In the meantime, women had contributed quite a lot in rights activities, took part in all the sit-ins against violence and killing. They were arrested. I was arrested several times. We can say that our alliance with the political parties had added much to our political record striving for change.
Sudanow: Tell us about the launch of your organization MANSAM and the beginnings of joint action.
Sawsan: There were so many initiatives for joint women work introduced by women leaderships. The last one of them was the Sudan’s Women Solidarity group which is composed of women in political parties and civil society organizations with the aim of activating the Sudanese change issues. This group was part of the Sudan Call, the largest alliance that gathered opposition political parties, armed movements and civil society in 2014. But when the forces for national consensus broke away from Sudan Call in 2016 the activities of this women group were slowed down. Therefore I launched the group ‘Women leaderships’ to encourage women for action. We started by gathering signatures against the candidacy of Omar Albashir as president for life declared then. This was interpreted by some that we were seeking the so-called soft - landing of Bashir, instead of his forceful ouster.
In December 2018 we signed MANSAM charter or Declaration. The group is consisted of 8 political parties and 15 civil society organizations at that time. This body had helped us to stage strong demonstrations against the defunct regime. The body had also attracted independent women, some of them are experts in human rights, academic and development experts. In January 2019 we wrote a memorandum in which we condemned the killing of peaceful demonstrators and the heavy-handed dispersal of demonstrations. The memo was directed to the UN and the public opinion. We continued raising the public awareness about importance and inevitability of change.
Sudanow: MANSAM’s activity during the revolution?
Sawsan: We continued our activity before, and during the sit-in outside the Army General Command. We had our own pavilion, looked for specialized women who gave us their expertise. We collected donations and took part in all activities, cleaning and hygiene work, food preparation, political enlightenment and all the activities that made the sit-in a success until the regime downfall.
Sudanow: Your part in the talks after the regime collapse?
Sawsan: Our participation in the talks was limited. That is why the political representation was below expectations with respect to women causes. Women did not have equal seats with men in the Sovereignty Council (2 - 11) and the cabinet (4 - 20) as compared with women participation in the revolution.
Sudanow: Why didn’t you petition with the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) for equal representation?
Sawsan: Yes, we have met the political parties and the FFC and asked for a sixth bloc to represent women in the FFC, but received no reply so far, although we forwarded 27 names of qualified women candidates for official posts.
Sudanow: What about your participation in the peace talks?
Sawsan: In the political document it is stipulated that the Peace Commission leads the peace talks. But the Addis Ababa talks came out with a new mechanism. That is the higher council for peace under the chairmanship of the president of Sovereignty Council. And when we started preparations for forwarding women for the peace talks, we received meager information as to where and when the talks will be held and what will happen. For that we arranged for a round table conference and invited the chairman of the higher council for peace, the council of ministers, representatives of the FFC and the military movements groups and representative of the international community as observers. It was a successful gathering and we came out with a lot of information. There was agreement on an economic committee, security, federalism or local government, among other ministerial committees. We also called for the assignment of female experts as negotiators and they agreed. We also called for an apology from the Army for the violations against the citizens in Darfur. We considered all these developments as good gestures for peace. But the round table conference was faced with sharp criticism from the activists and the youth resistance committees.
Sawsan: They criticized us because of the compromise that led to the constitutional document (provides for a joint civilian-military ruling body to oversee the formation of the transitional civilian government) that we believe had saved lives and kept the peacefulness of the revolution. But they continued to argue that the round table was a sort of soft landing. They were also upset by the breaking of the sit-in that undercut confidence between the two sides.
Despite this passive atmosphere, we went on and trained women negotiators (including IDPs and women from conflict zones). But our representation in the Juba peace talks was very little (one or two) in main sessions, working alternately. Up to now the peace talks did not reach conclusive results. Still, it is our hope that peace deals which realize our ambitions be reached and remove the root causes of the conflicts.
Sudanow: You in MANSAM, what are your plans for the talks?
Sawsan: We have launched workshops for the humanitarian, economic, political and security talks. We have agreed on the minimum limit of consensus between women that address Sudan issues leaving back our political views and differences to be united in the talks. That is because the presence of women inside the peace talks is a guarantee for Sudan. The workshop supported by IGAD, Unwomen has helped us draft women agenda for the talks (political and civilian) in keeping with the UN Resolution 1325 that calls for women representation in the peace talks. A group from MANSAM, the Sudanese Women Union and the organization ‘No to Women’s Oppression Initiative’ had travelled to Juba.
MANSAM structure has 15-member elected coordination committee. We work through four themes: peace and transitional justice, economic and social, women political participation and democratic transformation, plus experts, media and academia groups, besides the body of representatives of all the groups. The committee now continues with its work in all these axes. We are looking forward for drafting the constitution that steers the country towards liberties and reaffirms the country’s rule of law and equal citizenship, besides Sudan active role as a member of the international community. We will also seek to enact policies for education, health, the economy and for activating the role of women, the formation of women cooperatives and the establishment of a sound economic system.
Sudanow: By the way, what is your plan for the proposed economic conference?
Sawsan: We were supposed to hold workshops during 18-19 March on the role of women in the economic activity. And because the conference was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic we are now preparing papers on the role of women in the economy. The papers will be drafted in a major paper to be presented to the economic conference. MANSAM and other groups such as the businesswomen association ..etc take part in the preparation of those papers.
Sudanow: Thank you.
Sawsan: You are welcome.
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