SEATTLE, Washington — Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas proposed the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act in the U.S. House of Representatives back on February 27, 2014. Since then, the bill has been removed and reintroduced through the congressional cycles. Recently, on February 21, 2020, the bill was introduced to the 116th Congress in the House of Foreign Affairs and referred the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations on April 3. While the legislation has yet to be passed, the South Sudanese women’s rights and equality issues the bill addresses are relevant today. As South Sudan works to rebuild its community and economy following civil conflict and amid a global crisis, international support is needed to determine the development of women’s equal rights and access.
What Issues Do the Women of South Sudan Face?
South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, after a civil war that lasted more than a decade. According to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), after two years of peace, a five-year conflict began, displacing millions and killing thousands. A large proportion of those displaced is women and children.
Moreover, according to the United Nations, at least four out of every 10 women in South Sudan have experienced some form of violence. Displaced women and children face increased risks of violence, starvation, illness and dire poverty as they are separated from their homes and community support networks. To build a better and equal future, all of these challenges need to be addressed.
In addition to basic safety, the women and girls of South Sudan need education equity. South Sudanese women are half as likely to be literate as men in South Sudan. Furthermore, South Sudan’s population is incredibly young, with 49% of the South Sudanese population 18 years old or older. Therefore, reforms that address gender equality issues in education can better the standard of living of nearly half the country’s population, creating a brighter future for South Sudan.
The Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act
The Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act recommend various strategies to promote safety and opportunity for the women of South Sudan. Among these are listening to and funding women’s organizations, economic development, creating healthcare and education initiatives inclusive to women and girls and improving safety from trafficking and violence.
Additionally, the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act suggests that when working with the South Sudanese government, the U.S. should also incorporate the views and needs of female South Sudanese leaders and advocacy organizations. Moreover, South Sudan and U.S. initiatives should promote the inclusion of women and prioritize their needs in the government. In addition to female inclusion in the legislature, the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act proposes that branches of the South Sudan government, including the military and police force, be trained on women’s rights issues.
How the Act Will Guide Post-Conflict Rebuilding
Today, the U.S. is assisting South Sudan with its post-conflict rebuilding process. The Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act suggests that a significant portion of this support should go to female-run organizations that prioritize gender equity issues.
The act supports efforts to improve the safety of South Sudanese women, such as human trafficking prevention measures, assistance for victims and policies that hold traffickers accountable. To build a stable post-conflict society conducive to women’s safety, the Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act promotes the rehabilitation of former child soldiers, integration and education programs for former combatants and landmine awareness and removal programs.
Moreover, women’s guaranteed safety is impossible with South Sudan’s current health care capacity. The act proposes the financing of health care infrastructure building, including mental health care, primary, reproductive, maternal and child healthcare.
Human trafficking and dire poverty have been particularly prevalent for women in refugee camps. The act addresses these issues by promoting direct food delivery, relief supply packages and essential services for female refugees. These measures will ensure women in refugee camps are receiving proper health care and respect refugee autonomy in the relocation process.
Rebuilding South Sudan Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
As South Sudan continues to rebuild its economy and institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, women are in a greater need for monetary support. The bill promotes financial independence for the women of South Sudan through long-term economic development programs that will increase women’s access to assets such as land, water and credit.
The programs will center on the needs of all women, including rural women, female heads of households, widows and disabled women. Economic development programs also include educational development through funded assistance for education at all levels, from primary, secondary and tertiary to vocational and non-traditional programs.
Why Should the U.S. Assist South Sudan?
Some may wonder what responsibility the U.S. has to the women of South Sudan. However, the U.S.’s involvement with South Sudan’s development and conflict resolutions has long been established. As such, the U.S. should advance human rights as part of its work in the region.
The U.S. played a role in developing the 2005 Peace Agreement that set the stage for South Sudan’s independence, and is a leading donor to South Sudan, providing essential humanitarian assistance. The Equal Rights and Access for the Women of South Sudan Act would create a framework to use the U.S.’s current influence in South Sudan to aid and empower women.