This interview is with members of the Sudan Taskforce on the Engagement of Women, which was formed in 2013 by Sudanese female civil society leaders and political party officials to serve as a conduit between the peace process and communities throughout Sudan. Because of their transparency in the process and their connections to conflict-affected communities, Taskforce members are considered honest brokers with whom government, opposition, and international officials consult and share information. As official observers in the August 2016 Two Areas and Darfur peace talks, Taskforce members served as informal mediators, and focused on urging negotiators to continue to participate in the process. The members include: Ehlam Naser, Gamar Habani, Mawahib Elhaj, Nawal Khidir, Samia Elhashmi, Eman Alkhawad, Zainab Alsawy, Entisar Abdel Sadig, Kamilia Kura, Safaa Elagib, Suad Abdel Al, Tamadur Khalid, Maria Abbas, and Huda Shafig.
You formed a taskforce to advocate for women’s inclusion in the Sudan peace process. What are your priorities? What difference has the taskforce made?
Drawing on a long history of Sudanese women working together to promote a more peaceful and just society, we formed the taskforce in 2013 to make sure that the Sudanese and South Sudanese peace processes were more inclusive. We also saw the peace negotiations happening totally separate from the efforts at local and state level; we wanted to change that, to serve as a bridge between the official talks and the everyday reality for communities. And we know that the roles and perspectives of women will make these processes more effective.
We have earned the trust of the government and opposition groups due in part to our diversity—our thirteen members represent various political parties and civil society. We have built strong relationships at all levels, from the mediation body—the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel—to the conflict-affected communities on the ground.
We are effective because we are focused on results. We come with practical recommendations to help move the talks forward. And we are impartial and transparent—we meet with the Sudanese government, opposition leaders, and armed groups to advocate for progress. We also made a difference during the Sudanese national dialogue. The dialogue started with just three female participants; when it came to an end in 2017, women represented two hundred out of the seven hundred representatives. We organized together to better influence the process, and are proud that the dialogue’s outcome document has strong content on freedom, governance, and the economy—a few of the specific priorities raised by women.
How have you influenced the peace negotiations?
We helped rally all of the key actors around the African Union roadmap, which is the framework for the process. At first, only the government had signed it; we encouraged the armed groups and opposition parties to sign it as well. When parties would walk out of the talks in Addis Ababa, we helped to bring them back in the room. And because of our role in ensuring that everyone endorsed the roadmap, we were the only Sudanese actors granted official observer status in the August 2016 talks.
We also informed the roadmap itself. We advocated that it cover political and security issues in parallel, knowing that there will be no peace without a political solution. And when we saw that the conflict-affected communities on the ground did not know what was happening with the negotiations, we advised the African Union mediators to produce a version of the roadmap in Arabic that we then helped to disseminate.
When peace talks stalled over access to humanitarian assistance, we met with Yasir Arman and other leaders from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and advocated that they accept the U.S. government’s proposal on humanitarian assistance. We relayed to the negotiators what local groups had conveyed to us: communities felt they could get food through other means, and wanted the talks to proceed in hopes of a broader resolution to the conflict.
On a wider scale, taskforce members have encouraged negotiators to address access to education within the broader humanitarian debate, in order to ensure that communities are able to build a stable future. We also recommended the inclusion of provisions on food security, protection for internally displaced persons and refugees, and the prevention of gender-based violence.
Because of the trust we had earned and the contributions we had made, we were the only Sudanese people granted observer status in the 2016 negotiations.
You travel around conflict-affected parts of the country to consult with the communities there. What has come out of this?
The peace process does not have much connection to the actual people on the ground. We are trying to change that, to help make sure that Sudanese people have a better sense of what is happening in the negotiations, and that the negotiators have a better sense of the priorities of the people living in the affected areas. So we bring political updates to the communities—in Blue Nile, Khartoum, South Kordofan, West Darfur, West Kordofan, and White Nile. We train journalists so that they cover it on their radio shows, reaching people across the region. We consult with elected leaders, youth groups, and women’s groups. We ask them what their needs are, what they hope for from the negotiations, and what their vision is on how to overcome the obstacles preventing progress in the talks. We also host policy forums, bringing community leaders together with their local politicians to share these messages. Beyond the cessation of hostilities, we often hear people focus on basic services—access to healthcare and to education. We relay these messages back to the negotiators and to the African Union and other countries observing and supporting the process.
What do you hope will happen in the peace negotiations?
Any talks should include attention to both the political track and the security track; too often, the focus has been on security arrangements and ceasefires, without attention to what comes next, even though the roadmap itself calls for these tracks to occur in parallel. The roadmap is a good framework for the peace process—we hope all parties will follow it.
We also want to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, and that means women too. There should be more women on the negotiating teams, and the African Union should include more women as mediators.
What about the Darfur process?
There are no women on any of the delegations to the Darfur process. We asked the parties why there were no women at the talks. They told us Darfuri women were too busy with their families, but we know that there are many experienced women leaders who want to be part of the process and will make valuable contributions once there. The parties will benefit from including them, and should ensure that women have a seat at the table.