South Sudan's women warriors struggle in peace
BOR, Sudan (AFP) — Alual Koch was 13 when she learnt to kill with a gun, fighting government soldiers as a jungle guerrilla in Sudan's devastating north-south civil war.
Now 36, she shows no emotion when recalling how she carried ammunition and treated wounded on the frontlines of the 21-year-conflict. But the young widow wipes away tears when recounting her present battle to support her family.
Three years after the US-brokered 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended Africa's longest running civil war, Koch is trying to make ends meet as a prison officer in the southern state of Jonglei.
"We are suffering very much," says Koch, whose 500 Sudanese pound (225 dollar) monthly salary has to support the 29 relatives and children of her dead fighter husband.
"It is too hard and I must take the children out to the countryside, so they can try to cultivate the fields for food."
Southern women played a significant role in the war, fighting and supporting the multiple armed groups, experts say, adding that they also suffered routine sexual violence.
But their heavy contribution is often overlooked and many women complain angrily that they are marginalised in the "new Sudan".
The Small Arms Survey warns that peace is "failing" female former fighters, forcing those no longer supported by the army to adopt "high-risk survival techniques" such as prostitution.
-- I fought for freedom but have no chance of going to school --
Without other income many are dependent on male soldiers, with health workers reporting "serious challenges" in responding to high rates of sexual violence, said the independent research group.
Measures taken to protect women, such as the southern army's ban on rape and government directives on gender equality, appear "largely ineffective" in practice, said a report in September.
"Their post-conflict status is among the lowest of all groups in south Sudan, regardless of ethnic or tribal background," it added.
Bor, state capital of remote and swampy Jonglei where southern rebels first took up arms in 1983 against the Arab-led regime in the north, was one of the hardest hit regions in the war.
Life is grim for all here, a grossly underdeveloped region with some of the worst indicators of development and health in the world.
One in 50 women die in childbirth -- one of the highest rates in the world. Healthcare remains basic even in the capital Juba, a largely tin and thatch-hut city without effective water, sewerage or electricity.
Life is especially hard for women, struggling from the effects of war in a region where traditionally they can be treated as property to be exchanged for cattle in a wedding dowry.
Literacy rates for women remain grossly low at an estimated 12 percent -- one third of that of men -- while some 17 percent of girls will be married off before they reach 15, according to a 2006 government-backed survey.
The Small Arms Survey reported "violent skirmishes" over dowry disputes and the "ownership" of female ex-combatants.
More than 100 demonstrators recently marched through the muddy streets of Bor calling for an end to violence against women, following a conference bringing women's unions and government representatives from across Jonglei.
"I fought for freedom but still we have no chance of going to school to get education and that cannot be fair," said police Corporal Martha Ayen Deng, 49, a former frontline nurse and fighter.
While the government is keen to back girls' education, many complain that opportunities for female adult education are limited compared to men.
"I am lucky to have a job, but there are many more who have nothing, no support," added Deng, who was widowed in the war.
A 430-million-dollar UN campaign to demobilise around 180,000 ex-rebels into civilian life will include women ex-fighters, but critics say it excludes the majority of those who played supporting roles within the combat zone.
These include people not listed as actual Sudan People's Liberation Army fighters, such as informal nurses, cooks, porters, wives of fighters, all still integral to the war effort, or women in other militias.
-- Why can we not today treat women as equals --
The southern leadership says it is committed to supporting women, setting up a fund for war widows and guaranteeing at least a quarter of posts for women in the fledgling government.
Around 17 percent of government positions are held by women at national and state level, although that should increase following national elections, which are scheduled for 2009 despite widespread fears of delays.
"Women lost their lives in the war as equals of men, so why can we not today treat women as equals to men," asked Rachael Nyadak Paul, Jonglei state minister for social development.
Southern President Salva Kiir repeatedly speaks out to promote women, including promising support for women candidates in next year's elections, and styling himself as "watchdog" of women's rights.
Sudan's new electoral law grants women 25 percent of the seats in parliament and introduces proportional representation by enshrining quotas for political parties in what has been billed as a road towards democratic transformation.
"We must promote able, educated and mature women to positions of responsibility and influence if we are to ensure that we will meet the needs of the mothers and sisters and daughters in our community," Kiir said in a recent speech.
But there are vast gaps between government rhetoric and concrete progress.
Critics are increasingly outspoken about sizeable oil revenue being diverted to military spending, rather than education or health, and condemn massive alleged corruption within the southern government.
"We women fought as hard for a 'New Sudan' as men did," said Athok Alaak, a widowed teacher in Bor.
"Now we are asking for support and a chance to make sure those sacrifices are not wasted or lost."