A few days ago, people across America celebrated our nation's Independence Day and over 230 years of freedom since that fateful day in 1776 when we became the world's first modern democracy. Looking back at our earliest days as a country, it amazes me to think of the daunting obstacles our new nation faced, and how uncertain our future was. With the strength of unity and the help of allies, our country survived against extraordinary odds, and grew into a nation I am proud to call home. Amidst the parades, cookouts, and fireworks shows on the 4th, I was reminded of another fledgling democracy that would celebrate its first year of independence a few days later.
Today that country, South Sudan, marks its first anniversary since declaring independence and becoming the world's newest democracy. A year ago, excitement was high across South Sudan over the possibilities that independence might bring: to finally end decades of civil war, to live free from the fear of violence, and to build a stable country. Women, who made up 52 percent of the voters in the referendum for independence, hoped that peace and independence would lead to a better future for themselves and their children. Today, the outlook is much different.
Numerous risks threaten the well-being and even existence of the young country. Over half the country's population will live in hunger this year as the existing food crisis worsens, and poverty is widespread. Inter-communal violence and massive cattle raids have killed hundreds of people in the last year and forced over 100,000 people to flee their homes. And in March of this year, armed conflict between South Sudan and Sudan resumed, endangering the lives of civilians on both sides of their border.
These are incredible challenges for a new democracy. Much like the struggles America faced at its founding, it will take a unified effort by the people of South Sudan to resolve them. It must start with building peace, for freedom without peace is no freedom at all. And such an effort, if it is to be successful, must include women.
So far, women have been excluded from participating in the official peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan, to the detriment of the negotiations. Women have long supported efforts to build peace in South Sudan, through organizing marches to advocate for peace, leading workshops, and turning out en masse for critical elections. They understand that peace is more than defining borders and demilitarization, and they know that their country will never know peace if the root causes of instability at the individual and community level are unresolved.
For this reason, women have vital contributions to make to the official peace talks taking place with Sudan. Women's intimate knowledge of how war impacts the lives of civilians brings new perspectives to the negotiating table, which male negotiators and combatants do not typically consider. For example, during peace talks in Sudan in 2006, male negotiators were unable to resolve a dispute over the control of a particular river, until women were allowed to participate in the talks. The local women, who fetch water daily, pointed out that the river the men were fighting over had already dried up. It only makes sense, then, that such strong proponents for peace in South Sudan be included in peace negotiations.
Recently, I was talking with Women for Women International's Country Director in South Sudan, Regina Sulla, about the hopes of the women in our program in South Sudan around their Independence Day. "The women of South Sudan wish for peace, because with peace they can do many things," she said. "When you talk with the women, you can see all they wish for is for their children. 'I want my children to go to school. I want my children to have a good education so they can work, so they can be prime ministers or presidents.'"
Her words struck me. Though South Sudan is 7,000 miles away from the U.S., we still share the same desire to live in peace and freedom. We both share the same dreams for our children, that they can grow up safe, go to school, and maybe someday become president. As we both celebrate independence this week, I hope we can each commit ourselves to keeping that dream of possibility alive. And to the women of South Sudan on this historic day, know that people in another democracy across the world join you as you celebrate how far your country has come, and we send you our encouragement and support in friendship as you face the difficult days ahead.
For more information about Andrée's work, please visit www.womenforwomen.org.