Women’s and grassroots civil society’s participation in Sudan’s current political process toward democracy and civilian governance

Position Paper submitted to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)

Country: Sudan

This position paper draws on a series of discussions and interviews conducted by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) between August 2021 and June 2022. These discussions were complemented by an online survey completed by 98 women from various backgrounds, including grassroots women’s networks, women human rights defenders, political activists, IDPs, Sudanese refugees, women with disabilities, as well as members of political parties and armed groups. The paper presents the positions of these women within the ongoing political process facilitated under the auspices of the Tripartite Mechanism. 

What is the issue? 

In the aftermath of the 25 October coup, international and regional actors continued to adopt an ad-hoc and securitized approach to Sudan, one that prioritizes quick fixes and privileges the narrow interests of politico-military elites. The ongoing political process facilitated by the Tripartite Mechanism does not depart significantly from this approach. Phase I has thus far shown a striking resemblance to the 2019 deal, in which the demands of the populace are superseded by elites, and the resultant framework agreement has been lauded by the international community but vehemently resisted or outright rejected by pro-democracy forces. If the process continues to be nothing more than an elite and Khartoum-centered exercise, it could very well deepen the rifts in an already polarized and charged climate. 

This current political process is touted as being ‘home-grown.’ However, it has, in many ways, failed to galvanize popular support. The process has been perceived as elitist, Khartoum-centered, opaque, and gender-blind. The glaring lack of inclusivity, transparency, and open communication were cited as significant challenges that are likely to undermine the credibility of an already beleaguered process. Statements released by the Tripartite Mechanism as well as the political process spokesperson called for the inclusion of, and constructive engagement with, broader constituencies; however, with the commencement of the final phase of the process, the architecture and modalities for inclusion remain obscure, and the role of new actors is subject for speculation.

The sense of betrayal among women – from across the spectrum – is palpable. Despite playing a consequential role in setting the wheels of change in motion, women consistently find themselves excluded from decision-making processes. Mounting anxiety was voiced over the conspicuous absence and deliberate exclusion of women from political processes and the risk of eroding the gains achieved through decades of tireless work and tremendous sacrifices. Many contend that, as it currently stands, the political process does not make room for examining the extant issues that disproportionately affect women and girls. The callous disregard for women’s meaningful engagement is in many ways symptomatic of Sudanese political processes, in which women’s legitimate demands for reform are often met with performative politics that offer little more than empty rhetoric. At this critical juncture, bridging the gap between rhetoric and action will serve as a litmus test of the commitment of all parties to women’s meaningful participation.

In a similar vein, concerns were raised that glossing over the catastrophic economic situation, the alarming humanitarian crisis, the mounting repression, militarization, and unabated violence against civilians – across the country – renders the parties’ commitment to the process suspect and impedes meaningful participation and buy-in. Questions of trust, credibility, and guarantees also gave rise to warranted fears that the ongoing process could engineer yet another elite pact with actors who have a long track record of reneging on deals and a penchant for repeating the mistakes of the past. 

Where do we stand? 

Sudanese women’s exclusion from public life in general and politics, in particular, is ubiquitous. The marginalization of women and girls is institutionalized and operates through layers of formal and informal rules. Women are significantly underrepresented in political parties, not for lack of interest or capacities, but rather because the systematic exclusion of women is endemic to Sudanese political institutions. Women remain underrepresented at all levels in political parties and therefore have minimal leverage to influence party decisions. Despite their exclusion, women have carved out spaces and avenues for participation through civil society and grassroots organizations. The vibrancy and diversity of civil society and grassroots organizations open up opportunities for engaging with broader groups and provide a counterweight to the privileged political narratives championed by the elites.

Civil society and grassroots structures such as women’s organizations and Resistance Committees continue to play instrumental roles; filling the vacuum created by the state, seeking to reimagine governance and state institutions, and renegotiating the social contract. In the wake of the 2018 Revolution, civil society, particularly women and youth-led organizations, has become increasingly organized and better attuned to the evolving social, economic, and political realities on the ground. 

Consequently, the final phase of the political process is critical and offers opportunities for reflection and doing things differently. This phase calls for more transparency from all parties and a clear roadmap for how the calls for broader inclusion – by the TM and political parties – will be translated into practice. It requires opening up communication and feedback channels to all citizens from across the country, particularly those who are most impacted. It also calls for leveraging mainstream media and ensuring that the public remains informed and involved at all stages of the process and that recommendations be disseminated timely and widely. Whether the current political process yields, any tangible and durable results hinges primarily on charting a clear path toward an open and inclusive process that resonates with large segments of the population. In light of this reality, we call on all parties to:

  • Maintain Transparency and open communication: in an environment marked by distrust and polarization, transparency is key. There is a pressing need to move beyond backroom politics. Press conferences, briefings, and statements may stem the spread of misinformation, but more remains to be done. Regular and open communication should not be an exception. Keeping the public informed of both progress and challenges and establishing mechanisms to hold all actors accountable is of paramount importance
  • Articulate a clear process roadmap: given the complexity of the political scene and the resultant fragmentation and uncertainty, there can be no room for ambiguity. The calls for broadening participation should be better articulated; who participates and why; what the modalities of engagement are; the roles of the different actors; and, more importantly, how the emanating recommendations will translate into concrete actions should be clearly spelled out.
  • Prioritize the inclusion of women, in all their diversity, as equal actors in the decision-making process: organizing consultations on so-called “women’s issues” is far from sufficient. The contentious issues currently under discussion have a differential impact on women and girls and will continue to have far-reaching repercussions for years to come. Accordingly, working closely with women’s organizations and networks is urgent now more than ever.
  • Move beyond narrow elite politics: If this process is to become genuinely “home-grown,” it must bring forward the diverse voices of women and men from all corners of the country. As some women aptly put it: “what’s cooked in Khartoum cannot be served in the states.” Ignoring the voices of the vast majority at the expense of catering to the political elites is a tried and tested recipe for failure. 
  • Sustained engagement through fostering spaces for dialogue: in order for consultations to be meaningful, they cannot be one-off conversations. A more coordinated and coherent approach is needed to sustain engagements with larger segments of the population. Direct lines of communication and platforms that enable citizens to express their views, feed into, and reflect on the ongoing process should be prioritized. It is equally crucial to reflect on how to reach people in rural areas in ways that are accessible and meaningful to them.

Relegating women to the margins of decision-making processes will only serve to reproduce inequalities, exacerbate grievances, and further entrench women’s exclusion. The failure of the 2019 political process is still fresh in collective memory, and it should serve as a sobering reminder that a return to the status quo ante is not an option. In the face of ever-growing polarization, there is an urgent and moral imperative to break away from top-down, exclusionary, and ad-hoc approaches because the cost of doing ‘politics as usual’ is exorbitantly high, and it is one that the Sudanese people can no longer afford to pay.