Women, who were at the forefront of Sudan’s pro-democracy movement four years ago, are being sidelined in the political transition-turned-crisis in Sudan today. In 2019, many scholars and activists shared a sense of optimism [PDF] about women’s role in Sudan’s democratic future. Reports at the time estimated women accounted for as many as 70 percent of protesters taking to the streets in protests ultimately leading to the ouster of Al Bashir. A powerful image of Alaa Salah, a twenty-two-year-old student standing on top of a car termed the “woman in white,” served as a symbolic image reflecting women’s leading roles in the uprising.
Today’s crisis in Sudan has exposed the failure of current efforts by powerful international and Sudanese forces to secure the vision set out by the country’s women-led pro-democracy movement. Political infighting has plagued ongoing attempts to secure peace, serving as fodder for recent violence to erupt and creating new threats for the country and region’s security. The fate of the women’s movement, which itself has suffered fractures, will be critical to ensuring the country’s potential for democracy and lasting peace.
Soon after women helped to lead a ground-breaking moment in Sudan, female activists reported feeling sidelined. The Sudanese Women’s Declaration for Change No (1) in 2019 initially demanded the representation of women in all sectors at decision-making positions, but when Sudan announced its transitional government in 2019, women activists were disappointed that they comprised less than 25 percent of the cabinet. Many female activists reported facing violence for their activism during and following the fall of Al Bashir in the country’s scramble for democratic governance alongside wider political exclusion, shaped by prevailing social norms that view politics as a masculine space and curtail women’s mobility.
In the years following, Sudanese female activists have faced continued obstacles. The country’s military regime has been accused of targeting female protestors, activists, and journalists. This should be a major concern given the clear links between women’s participation and lasting peace (supporting gains in Colombia and the Philippines [PDF], for example) as well the connections between women-led movements and democracy building in contexts such as Poland, Chile, and the Philippines.
Both the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the major parties to the recent outbreak of violence across the country, have failed to protect women. Although the transitional government had achieved some gains, such as the outlawing of female genital mutilation in April 2020, many of the country’s laws remain regressive, as illustrated by a high-profile case of a woman sentenced to stoning for adultery in 2022. The RSF has long been accused of weaponizing sexual violence against women, including the mass rape of more than seventy women following a sit-in in July 2019. UN Women has already reported increases in cases of sexual and gender-based violence resulting from the current escalation in violence, including rising reports of rape targeting displaced women, and threats to women’s effective healthcare as violence worsens.
The Sudanese women’s movement itself has not been immune to broader trends in political infighting threatening Sudanese peace. Women of Sudanese Civil and Political Groups (MANSAM), a coalition of women’s groups who arranged sit-ins and raised funds among other activities during the 2018-2019 uprising, have been targeted by the country’s security forces. As the transition began, women’s groups affiliated with different political parties also exited the coalition. The withdrawal of its largest sub-group, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, which has been critical of MANSAM, further weakened the wider movement. Although some attempts, as recently as March 2023, aimed to convene women as part of deal-brokering efforts, in the face of these and wider political divisions, such attempts have fallen short. Recent statements drawing together 20 groups of Sudanese women activists calling for the end of violence indicate momentum for pulling together women’s groups over common cause.
Past experiences inform just how important women’s activism and participation is to the success of efforts to enable democracy in Sudan. They also indicate how splintering and infighting across the political landscape, including within the women’s movement, has shaped the transition process and weakened the power of Sudan’s pro-democracy efforts. As these forces regroup in response to the breakout of violence among security forces and try to broker solutions to the country’s thorny political issues, the latest crisis is a critical opportunity to draw renewed attention to women’s participation. Helping to enable and support the women’s movement that so boldly led the democratic movement in 2019 should be a central concern for those working to build lasting stability and peace.