Sudan: A Passion for Peace: Even as Atrocities in Western Sudan Have Drawn the World's Focus in Recent Months, There Are Signs of Hope Elsewhere in the Nation, Which Has Been Ravaged by Civil War for Four Decades. If the Current Push for Peace in the North-South Conflict Succeeds, Much of the Credit Is Due to the Country's Women

By Palmberg, Elizabeth | Sojourners Magazine, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Sudan: A Passion for Peace: Even as Atrocities in Western Sudan Have Drawn the World's Focus in Recent Months, There Are Signs of Hope Elsewhere in the Nation, Which Has Been Ravaged by Civil War for Four Decades. If the Current Push for Peace in the North-South Conflict Succeeds, Much of the Credit Is Due to the Country's Women


Palmberg, Elizabeth, Sojourners Magazine


Awut Deng Acuil's eyes have the haunted look common to people from Sudan's war-ravaged south, but it is clear at once that neither national upheaval nor personal trauma can slow her down. The grassroots peace activist and women's advocate who once embarked on a speaking tour with her 40-day-old baby in tow, while in deep grief for the death of her husband--is not an easy person to stop.

When Deng talked with Sojourners earlier this year at the World Social Forum in India, she looked bone-tired from five days of speaking and conference-going. No matter how weary she is, though, Deng looks you in the eye and tells you the truth--whether about Sudanese women's struggle for empowerment, the peacemaking process that has healed bloody conflicts within southern Sudan, or Deng's own pain at her husband's death. Simply dressed, with short hair and a direct gaze, Deng speaks with weight and quiet determination.

Deng is passionate about the need for women to play an active role in guiding Sudan's future. She was one of six women delegates from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in its negotiations with the northern government in 2002--but later each of the six was taken off the official list, one by one, with no explanation. Deng herself was the last to go. As she describes female struggles to participate in the peace process--"a step forward, a step backward"--her face shows a patience that is anything but passive.

After being excluded from the north-south talks, women met to issue their own statements and organize demonstrations. Sudanese women have suffered profoundly from the rape, abduction, and economic devastation that accompany war--and, because of the ravages of war, women now make up the majority" in southern Sudan.

Deng, who helped found the Nairobi-based Sudanese Women Voice for Peace and the Sudanese Women Association of Nairobi, has dialogued with women from northern Sudan around the issues they share in common, such as having their children taken away to fight: "The war is being fought, and there are no benefits," she says.

WHILE THEY HAVE often been excluded from the north-south negotiations, women, including Deng, have played a key role in a crucial peacemaking effort within southern Sudan: the "people-to-people peace process" that, over the last six years, has healed devastating conflicts between and within southern ethnic groups. A 1991 ethnic split within the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, had led to a civilian border war. Such conflicts, often encouraged by the northern government, had devastated communities and hamstrung the south's ability to negotiate for peace with the government in Khartoum. The New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), which represents southern Sudanese Christian churches from pentecostal to Catholic, had been asked to mediate, but peacemaking attempts that were focused on the SPLA's military leaders went nowhere.

So, recounts Deng, the NSCC "went to the people," organizing a grassroots peacemaking process focused on people outside the SPLA factions: tribal chiefs, traditional religious leaders, and women. The first fruit of the new strategy was a peace gathering in the small town of Wunlit in 1999. Aimed at healing violence between the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups west of the Nile, the conference gathered more than 300 delegates--four-fifths of them traditional tribal and religious leaders, and one-fifth women.

Deng's face shows quiet satisfaction when she recounts the involvement of women in the conference itself and in the local peace council that the conference set up, which was mandated to be one-third female. The first sign that the conference would work, says Deng, "was that the women from the Nuer and Dinka [in their opening remarks] said that, at the end, everybody must unite. It was a very moving moment."

One of those women was Deng, who is Dinka. After the initial male speakers, she and a Nuer female delegate addressed the meeting, emphasizing that "we must go out as brothers and sisters from this conference. …

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Sudan: A Passion for Peace: Even as Atrocities in Western Sudan Have Drawn the World's Focus in Recent Months, There Are Signs of Hope Elsewhere in the Nation, Which Has Been Ravaged by Civil War for Four Decades. If the Current Push for Peace in the North-South Conflict Succeeds, Much of the Credit Is Due to the Country's Women
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